A good psychiatrist is a great healer.  Many people suffer with mental illness - the inability to grasp reality, anti-social behavior, and all sorts of self-destructive malaise.  To be the person that can put someone back together who is grappling something that cannot be seen or measured in an easy way is nothing short of a miracle worker.  Today, mental illness is accepted as a potential disorder just like any other disease.  Many of these disorders are treatable and with the right strategy, treatment and medication, even the most disturbed among us can live normal lives.  It wasn’t always like that.  Not so long ago, countless people were hospitalized, imprisoned and some went without any supervision their entire lives.  The late and renowned British playwright Peter Shaffer found intense drama in 1971 when told the story of a severely disturbed young man who blinded horses in a stable.  He spoke of the story and said “He knew only [that] horrible detail, and his complete mention of [the event] could barely have lasted a minute.  But it was enough to arouse in me an intense fascination.  After doing extensive research in 1973 he wrote a story based on this account, Equus the story of Alan Strang, a young man troubled and confused who felt like a barn full of horses were judging him and had to be punished.  Under the direction of AstonRep’s co-artistic director Derek Bertelsen, Equus opens AstonRep’s 12th season in their new home, the very comfortable and easily accessible Edge Theater. 


Rian Jairell is well cast as Martin Dysart, the child psychiatrist tasked with sorting out Alan Strang.  Strang was brought to him by Magistrate Hester Salomon (Alexandra Bennett).  She believed that he is the ideal practitioner for this uncanny case.  He has his work cut out for him, Alan (Sean William Kelly) will not talk to him.  After many sessions and the patience of a saint, he is able to gain his trust and they start to talk and discuss his situation.  Upon meeting with his parents, he finds that his mother, Dora (Julie Parytka) is extremely religious and reads to Alan from the Bible.  She has taught him that a fulfilled life means marriage and family.  His father, Frank (Robert Tobin), is an atheist and doesn’t believe in any kind of benevolent supremacy. 


After a few sessions with Alan he learns that horses are like Gods to him.  It started in early childhood, when he was lifted up on a horse for a ride, but thwarted by his parents who reprimanded the man who put him in the saddle.  Being on top of the horse was majestic to him.  Plus he had been told stories about the glory of horses, seen Westerns; everything he held dear was powered by horses.  When he became old enough to get a job, he met a young lady, Jill (Malia Hu) who got him a job in a stable.  He became more and more attracted to the horses, feeling their bodies, appreciating every muscle and sinew and even secretly riding them naked.  He develops a special attraction to a horse named Nugget (Jordan Pokorney).  Under hypnosis and a placebo “truth” pill, he confesses to Dr. Dysart that when Jill tries to seduce him, he is unable to perform because he believes the horses are unhappy about it.  It soon becomes clear that Alan Strang is confused.  So confused that he needs some divine protection and intervention to save him from going to Hell.  He is a believer like his mother but the traditional God concept has somehow manifested before him in the form of a horse.  He seeks to destroy the very power that he assigned divinity and power to. 


The beautiful thing about AstonRep’s Equus is Rian Jairell’s humility as Dr. Dysart.  This has to be the most challenging and perplexing dilemma he’s ever faced as an actor.  He is confident but a bit fearful that he will encounter something that will be too much for him, or that he will not dig deep enough to help this troubled soul find a cure.  Sean William Kelly is extremely compelling as the miserable young man who believes he has been saved from a life of pain, suffering and loneliness yet cannot share his blessing with anyone.  He feels that he has become more than human in the company of majestic horses, yet is betrayed and disillusioned when he finally has to come to grips with his mere mortal status.  Together they work to bring him down to earth and into a world where the body and spirit can harmonize. 


Equus is a taut thriller and it is frightening.  It’s a journey into the psyche of a troubled and demented young man who can no longer exist in the unreal world he believes he was called into.  Equus will run through October 27 in the comfort of the AstonRep’s new home, the Edge Theater, 5451 N. Broadway.  Visit www.AstonRep.com or phone 773-628-9129 for tickets and information. 

Review by Ruth Smerling
Photo credit:

Sean William Kelly, Andrew Whatley, Alexandra Bennett and Rian Jairell in AstonRep Theatre Company’s production of EQUUS. Photograph by Emily Schwartz.