Peter Shaffer’s Gothic tale of midlife, mythology and the unconscious has lost very little of its haunting edge and vitality in this revival of the 1975 Tony-winning play. If anything, the story has a deeper, more centered resonance in this interpretation by director Jules Aaron and his talented cast.
Inspired by a passing reference at a dinner party to an alarming crime, playwright Shaffer created a psychological detective story about a 17-year-old stableboy, Alan Strang (Eion Bailey), who inexplicably blinds six horses with a metal spike, and a child psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Dave Higgins), who treats him.
While the play was praised originally for its innovative staging, it has now settled into the secure status of a classic theater work. Director Aaron wisely blends elements of the original staging, including the famous abstract horses’ costumes, with classical theater elements such as a ring of columns behind the stage that emphasize the echoes of Greek myth in the piece.
But what is most striking about the play more than 20 years later is the depth of character and breadth of theme explored through the anguish of Dysart. The warring issues that Shaffer’s psychiatrist wrestles with — passion and propriety, organized religion and paganism, science and myth — seem even more relevant and disquieting today. As governments struggle with religious orthodoxy, as science challenges the boundaries of religion, and as the world careens headlong toward the millennium, Dysart has become more than a lone voice in the wilderness.
Higgins gives a commanding, visceral performance as the doctor, nearly crawling out of his skin with the scorching pain of midlife, himself blinded by the brilliance of his patient’s pure act of passion. Bailey is excellent as Strang, finding a straightforward, understated tone that is just right for this troubled boy.
Mark Capri and Amanda Carlin are terrific as Alan’s parents. Capri gives great depth to the stern, socialist father, while Carlin (whose mother, Frances Sternhagen, originated the role on Broadway), is dynamic as the obsessively religious mother who struggles to love her son even through the horror of what he has done.
Blake Lindsley is also excellent as Alan’s first and only girlfriend, matching his simple, grounded tone. And HopeAlexander-Willis is very good as the local magistrate chairman, who provides a comforting prod to Dysart’s grueling investigation.
In addition to his wise decision to honor Shaffer’s text above personal notions of staging, Aaron deserves great credit for gathering this talented ensemble cast and directing them with a strong and sensible hand. In this production, he has found a tone that deepens and enlarges the scope of the original play rather than simply imitating its previous success.
Set designer Gary Wissman creates a space that suggests rather than copies a Greek amphitheater, while lighting designer Kevin Mahan helps to maintain the vital, abstract quality of the piece. And sound designer Aodh Og O Tuama punctuates the dramatic moments without overwhelming them.