On the Saturday afternoon that I had arranged to meet with Alyssa Bresnahan between War Horse performances, I attended a matinee downtown and noticed the following headline in the Playbill: "Broadway - A Mother's Way." Even though it was Dad's Day weekend, I stared at the article, which interviewed Donna Murphy, Beth Leavel, and Victoria Clark about balancing career and motherhood, and wondered: How often do we read articles about balancing fatherhood and work? Double-standard alert?
But I knew that the topic was essential to address with Bresnahan, who plays Rose Narracott in War Horse, once I sat down in the dressing room she shares with fellow actor Cat Walleck. After all, I don't know of any men in the show's vast cast who are doing eight shows a week while breast-feeding an eight-month-old baby. A little girl whose name is Shannon, and whose appearances backstage are, to say the least, brightening.
"I was five months pregnant when I first auditioned for Rose," Bresnahan, who grew up in Brookline, Mass., told me. "That was a year ago. I wasn't showing all that much; later, at the callback, the pregnancy was more noticeable."
When Bresnahan did land the role, she and her husband - the actor James Colby: they met during an acclaimed 1998 run of A Streetcar Named Desire, at Hartford Stage - had a good laugh. "When we decided to have a child, we talked about the old wives' tale that babies bring good luck and good fortune," the actress said. "I had just missed out on getting a couple of big parts on Broadway. They cast women with TV names instead. But with War Horse I thought I had a good shot." Why? Bresnahan, who trained at NYU, explained by referencing the show's main puppet: "They already had a star: Joey. Plus, I was auditioning to play a mother and I was about to become a mother."
Bresnahan was also about to harvest karma in another way. "The first show I did after finishing school was with Theater for a New Audience," she said, mentioning a well-regarded off-Broadway organization. "It was called The Mud Angel, and I played a horse."
Now that Bresnahan has been portraying Rose for more than three months (after two months of rehearsal), what is the relationship between Mom onstage, where her son, Albert, is a teenager, and Mom offstage, where she and her husband have Shannon? "I think about Rose when I'm with my daughter, and I think about my daughter when I'm at the theater." She added: "Actors always talk about trying to be 'in the moment.' And with a baby you have to be. Everything is so new for Shannon. Yesterday, for example, she went crazy over a belt. She was just fascinated by it - she had just DISCOVERED it."
As for coping with the physical demands of her life right now, Bresnahan said, "Luckily for me, given the challenges of being a mom, the show itself is totally enjoyable. It's exhausting, but the pace of it carries you along very well: once the curtain goes up it's a great ride."
When I asked Bresnahan, whose intense warmth as Rose I often hear praised by audiences, to change course to the more grown-up subject of her fellowWar Horse actors, she replied that she'd never been in a cast this large. (She has, however, performed ancient Greek tragedy in ancient and modern Greek at ancient Greek theaters: not many American actors can say as much.) "It's remarkable how much energy there is around here, and how young everyone is: I don't think I've ever been one of the 'old folks' before."
Bresnahan also had a few good-natured things to say about the company's eating habits. "The care with which this group prepares its food is something. The number of guys who are good cooks is impressive." Bresnahan is even more taken with another aspect of the ensemble's health-driven lifestyle. "I don't think I've ever been in a company in which no one smokes."
If there were a backstage puffer, I suspect Bresnahan, and everyone else, would know. "This is a close cast," she said. "When we were rehearsing, we talked a lot about peripheral vision, and did exercises about it." She added: "What that means is that you have to keep everyone in your periphery as much as you can. This is partly because we're working on a thrust stage, and you need to keep an eye out in practical, physical terms." But the concept translates to when the ensemble is off-stage as well. "We try to keep an eye out for each other."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.