And so, on an Easter Sunday in which the "War Horse" cast enjoyed a potluck brunch backstage and the Easter bonnets that made their way from Fifth Avenue up to Lincoln Center swayed in a stiff breeze, I brought a nine-year-old girl to see the show. Her name is Bonnie Blue Smith, and she was named after Rhett and Scarlett's spawn in "Gone with the Wind." I had done due diligence and pointed out to my date's mother that the onscreen Bonnie Blue had a famously fatal accident involving a pony. Was a show in which some even larger steeds met a tragic fate the best way for her daughter to ring in the pastel-hued holiday?
Bonnie's Mom scoffed at my attempt to impose irony on a theatrical occasion. "Bonnie is a bright child, and is clear on the difference between what's real and what's make-believe." I accepted the assignment, while mentally noting that no parents to whom I have pointed out that "War Horse" is recommended for persons 12 and up has ever not thought that THEIR child was the rule's exception.
Before curtain, I asked Bonnie if World War One had ever been discussed in her fourth-grade social studies class. "Not very much," she replied. "We have been spending most of the year on American history. Native Americans and the Civil War. But I read some kids' books about World War 1." She mentioned "A Brave Soldier," by Nicolas Debon, which presents the conflict from a soldier's point of view. Bonnie said she planned to read Michael Morpugo's "War Horse" after she had seen the play.
I mean no disrespect to LCT's "War Horse" band of actors if I say that I spent at least as much of a performance watching Bonnie as I did the events on stage. I'll spare you the tosh about how thrilling it is to see little Joey transform into big Joey through a child's eyes: the widest-eyed wonder I've ever observed at that moment was that of a very tall, very ample old man. Nonetheless, it was a treat to see how rapidly Bonnie fell under the puppetry's spell, and how focused she was to every second of Act One. Who says that video mini-screens have ruined children's attention spans for good?
At the intermission, I asked Bonnie if she understood everything that had happened so far. She smiled politely (she is a well-mannered child), and answered, "Of course. What did you think would be confusing?" Dumb me. With my history buff's view of the material, I had forgotten that like all good stories "War Horse" works on multiple levels. What's more, most of the play's first act involves scenes of village and farm life: what would be perplexing to a nine-year-old about that, even to a city kid like Bonnie?
I had expected the second act, with its succession of battle and battle-related scenes, to be of less interest to Bonnie. Hah! Like many girls her age, once she outgrew her Life-Is-A-Fairy-Tale-And-I-Am-A-Princess phase, she began playing video games with a brother, in her case an older sibling who is into things a little more combative than FarmVille. So the sights and sounds of "War Horse" did not disturb her. Au contraire. The sharper the sound effect the straighter Bonnie sat in her seat.
I was especially interested to hear Bonnie's opinion of the second act's French farm girl, Emilie. After Bonnie had dried her eyes at "War Horse"'s ending, and we were making our way back across the Lincoln Center main plaza, where a few straggling Easter bonnets were still on display, I asked her about Emilie.
"She's a cute little girl," Bonnie said, adopting that slightly condescending tone that city kids sometimes project onto their country cousins (of any era). "She seemed to shriek and squeal a lot. I stopped doing that when I was five." Just as I was about to chide Bonnie for not understanding the stress that children undergo in wartime, she said, "I guess kids weren't as sophisticated then. On the other hand, she was stuck in the middle of battle. I can't imagine being a girl in that situation." Another pause. "Although I think I'd get through it better than some of my classmates. They think they won't survive if they don't get the latest Uggs for Christmas."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.