Mane Attraction

Mane Attraction

Jay Hardee throws himself into role in intense "Equus."

The Washington Shakespeare Company opens its 2006-07 season with a production of "Equus," whose intensity is evident from the moment one enters the theater at the Clark Street Playhouse to find spotlights tightly focused on three metal sculptures of horse heads suspended above the stage.

The play, by Peter Shaffer, has challenged directors and designers since it premiered in London in 1973. Its unique mixture of dramatic moments and potentially dry intellectual narration is also a great challenge for its two leading actors. Under director Lee Mikeska Gardner, those challenges are well met.

Jay Hardee combines a sense of innocence and serenity with eruptions of unfathomable violence and intense emotion in his portrayal of a teenage stable boy brought to a psychiatrist for examination after his arrest for using a stake to blind six of the horses under his care.

The intensity of Hardee's performance is the lynchpin of the evening, and not just during the eruptions of violence. He's just as compelling in the quiet moments. Those quiet moments set up the eruptions by creating a contrast that makes the re-enactment of his literally blinding rage amazingly effective.

Hardee begins and ends the evening in the nude. Actually, in the final explosion of violence and release he is only naked from the waist down but the tee shirt over his torso only serves to emphasize the exposure.

"I envy him" says the psychiatrist, played with a sense of wonder by Christopher Henley. He's talking about his patient's capacity for passion. Whether that passion is religious or romantic isn't the point. It is the ability to feel deeply, emotionally and passionately about anything that Henley's psychiatrist wishes he could emulate.

TWO OTHER performances of note add a sense of weight to the entire enterprise. Cam Magee is the boy's intensely religious mother. Her religious fervor, however, isn't so much of the passion type as it is the solace available to one raised within an established religion for whom most of life has been a disappointment. One disappointment has been her marriage to an admitted agnostic, a man who can't share her faith. Bruce Alan Rauscher gives that man a deep morality that won't let him pretend to share a faith that he honestly finds irrational.

The emotion plays out on a small square performing space with the audience arrayed on four rows of risers on each side of the square. Eric Dixon's sharply focused lights send beams down and through the space with two striking each of the horse head sculptures, casting shadowy silhouettes on the black drapery surrounding the space. In set designer Abby Wood's approach, the psychiatrist's office is established simply by wheeling a chair into the space while the stable locale is suggested by straw on the floor and bales of hay on the perimeter.

As spare and dramatic as the design at floor level is, however, it is the suspended horse heads that create the special feeling unique to this particular play. They hang there during the show and hang in your mind for quite a while longer.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a Web site covering theater in the region ( He can be reached at