Seth Numrich is not one of the War Horse cast members whose equine experience is confined to puppetry. "I rode a little as a teenager," Numrich told me the other day as we sat around one of the tables in the Beaumont lobby that function as an unofficial canteen for the production's notables. "And I did some mucking out of stalls," Numrich continued, leading to a mild joke on my part about the way War Horse expertly conjures up almost everything about farm life except the smell.
Our laughter was authentic, I hope: I grew up in South Dakota farm/ranch country, and Numrich, who plays Albert, the main boy in War Horse, the one whose search for his beloved animal, Joey, drives the story, is from Minnesota. It must be said, however, that Numrich grew up in St. Paul, as a child unattainably urban to me because it was near to theaters like the Guthrie.
Numrich's experience of the Twin Cities' performance scene came early. "I started doing theater when I was 11 or 12," Numrich said. "My dad is an actor/director/storyteller. He would sometimes take my older brother and me with him when he performed in schools and other places. We would act things out." He added: "I can remember when I was very young and my dad, my brother, and I would read Shakespeare together."
For Numrich, doing theater was not some extracurricular luxury. "It was an integral part of my education," the actor said. "I was home-schooled, entirely, after first grade. So when I was in a production of 'The Diary of Anne Frank,' I would learn about World War II and the Holocaust. When I was in 'To Kill a Mockingbird'" - War Horse cast member Stephen James Anthony, another Minnesota boy, was also in that show - "it was a chance to learn about civil rights and the South."
Accepted at Juilliard when he was 16, Numrich moved to New York in 2003, continuing to exercise the capacity for learning he imbibed as a home-schooled child. Since graduating from Juilliard, in 2007, he has completed short courses in, among other periods, 14th-century Venice (The Merchant of Venice, on Broadway, with Al Pacino), the Trojan War (Iphigenia 2.0, at New York's Signature), and, perhaps most exotic of all, the English all-male grammar school (The History Boys). There has also been a star-crossed lover or two, including the one he plays in the upcoming movie Private Romeo.
For Numrich, who is full of praise for the working methods of his current directors, Tom Morris and Marianne Elliott, War Horse has been an opportunity to immerse himself in World War One, especially in the poetry of Wilfrid Owen. War Horse is also a kind of summing up of his work to date. "It's an intimate story on an epic scale," Numrich said, "which is very Shakespearean. It has the strong bonds that young men form in battle, which reminds me of when I played Achilles. And I get to speak as an Englishman again."
And not some toff's tongue: Devon speak. "It's a delicious accent," Numrich said, quick to add that he's still trying to nail the exact Devonian nuance between the pronunciation of "can" and "can't." To perfect his War Horsespeaking, Numrich has been working with dialectician Gillian Lane-Plescia, with whom he was familiar from his fourth-year training at Juilliard. When he is not polishing his craft, Numrich is involved with Artists Striving to End Poverty, an organization whose website, ASTEPonline.org, sobers you with statistics like: "Child poverty in New York State is a whopping 26.3%, ranking it the highest in the industrialized world."
No matter how many detours I took with Numrich in our interview, we always found our way back to the bridle path. And not just the metaphysical aspect of the relationship between Numrich's character and his horse, a bond that is unusual without being overly Equus-y. "One of the reasons I sound so enthusiastic about the production," Numrich said, "is that I'm aware of how special it is for an actor to have the experience I'm having right now - interacting onstage with animals who aren't actual flesh and blood but who feel like flesh and blood." He added: "The puppeteer teams are so extraordinary that I honestly do feel when I'm onstage that I'm interacting with a horse."
The key to this simulation, Numrich explained, is breathing. "As humans, breathing is an involuntary thing: you don't really think about it unless you're having distress, or if you're in a meditation or yoga-like setting. But the puppeteers doing the War Horse horses have to make the animals breathe." He added: "That makes me conscious of my own character's breathing, which means I'm conscious of being alive. You can't imagine how powerful that feels."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.