Alejandro Simoes, Zachary Rice, Obehi Janice, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent in The Gift Horse, directed by Jim Petosa, at New Repertory Theatre.
Alejandro Simoes, Zachary Rice, Obehi Janice, and Maurice Emmanuel Parent in The Gift Horse, directed by Jim Petosa, at New Repertory Theatre.
(© Andrew Brilliant)

Written roughly two decades before Lydia Diamond's best-known works, Stick Fly and Smart People, The Gift Horse is finally receiving its Boston-area premiere in a solid production at New Repertory Theatre directed by artistic director Jim Petosa. While The Gift Horse is an uneven work that suffers from something of an identity crisis, it hints at the kind of clear-sighted perception that would become a trademark of Diamond's later works.

The Gift Horse centers on Ruth, played by the transfixing Obehi Janice, from her college days well into her marriage to Brian (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), her one-time therapist. (Just how much time passes during the play remains unclear, which is one of its problems.) Ruth's best friend, Ernesto (an irresistible Alejandro Simoes) has been by her side since college, and she considers him the only man she's ever trusted with her heart and soul. There is something in Ruth that almost aggressively seeks the attention of men, and she is initially offended when Ernesto doesn't take interest in her before learning that he is gay.

Ruth is better at talking than listening, and there is a theatricality to the way she interacts with others, as if she is always in the midst of a performance rather than just a discussion. But something dark begins to envelop Ruth. Ernesto, studying to be a psychologist, refers her to a doctor who may be able to help. A male doctor, she hopes, will help her get over her fear of men (we learn Ruth suffered sexual trauma at the hand of her father when she was a child). Ruth falls quickly for Brian, though she waits until she is no longer under his care to make her move.

There are a handful of plot points and subplots that contribute to The Gift Horse's identity crisis, especially by way of Jordan (the always radiant Cloteal Horne), a professional cellist who turns out to be Ruth's daughter, relegated to a side platform for much of the play and delivering short monologues here and there. Jordan will ultimately tie the play together in a semi-compelling way, but her presence throughout is confusing, and it's hard not to surmise that the play might be stronger without her.

For all of Ruth's heartbreaking pitfalls and revelations throughout the play, it is Ernesto who ultimately tugs on the heartstrings the most. The end of the first act, a good example of how affecting The Gift Horse could be with a few revisions, finds a destroyed Ernesto learning of his HIV diagnosis at the hand of his evil boyfriend, Bill (Lewis D. Wheeler).

Director Jim Petosa must be commended for both his smart staging and the thrillingly complex performances of this excellent cast, especially Janice and Simoes. As flawed as the material is, this production is consistently captivating. Jon Savage's functional and creative set aids in the fluidity of the staging, though Dewey Dellay's distracting sound design could be more refined.

The Gift Horse is a play that wears its imperfections on its sleeve, and yet it's somehow better because of it. Whatever it lacks in cohesion or focus, it makes up for in its gripping (and, it turns out, haunting) considerations of compromise and the impossibility of reconciling the past with the present. Diamond beautifully explores the purgatorial uncertainty of being human and touches on the selectiveness of memories, suggesting that our shortcomings and pain can one day be remedied by the way we're remembered by others.