Not long after he took over the role of Albert last month, Andrew Durand ran into a little trouble. It was during an act one scene of "War Horse," when his character is alone with his horse, Joey, and attempting to teach the animal to plow. "I was trying to put on his collar," Durand told me in his dressing room the other day, "and it got twisted up. It was like a leather Rubik's cube, and I had to solve the puzzle. It must have taken four minutes to sort it out. I felt panic at first. I was ad-libbing lines, telling Joey to be patient, when I was the one who needed patience." He added: "I couldn't believe that the audience wouldn't get impatient with what was going on. But they stayed right there with me, until I figured everything out."
Durand, who grew up in Marietta, Georgia, said the intensity of his relationship with the audience is a hallmark of his "War Horse" experience. "With the thrust stage, you can't believe how intimate the Beaumont feels," he said. "Sometimes, I'm not sure I have enough energy to do a performance. But once I get out on stage, the audience feeds me so much." I asked Durand whether, at the play's climax, the audience's emotional response might not be at least a little exhausting. "Because I've got on a blindfold then," he answered, "I'm able to focus my performance internally. Otherwise it might be too much."
There is a cost to doing a show eight times a week that places such physical and emotional demands on its actors. "I find that I don't have much of myself to spread around when I'm not at the theater," Durand explained. "This means that I don't have much social energy for my friends." He added: "You immediately understand why the cast and crew become your family while you're in this show."
As a boy in Georgia, Durand said that, like Albert, he was "a little bit of a loner, an outdoor kid." He would scour the creek near his family's home and look for frogs and salamanders. "I would construct habitats for them." He also was close to the family dog, Max. "He was a collie-sheltie mix. I had him from the age of 5 through high school." The actor said he understands why Albert would feel closer to Joey than to humans. "When you're with a beloved animal it's like being by yourself yet not being by yourself. Unlike humans, animals don't judge you."
I was a little surprised to hear Durand, who trained at the Boston Conservatory, say that it was harder to do "War Horse" than to do a musical. "This show is more vocally taxing, because of the yelling in certain scenes. Musicals are set more to tracks, and the singing there requires a different kind of technique and provides what is in some ways a more concentrated focus."
Because Durand looks as young as the teenage Albert he is portraying, you might think that his references to musical theater are not buttressed by experience. You would be mistaken. He has done "Spring Awakening" on Broadway, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" in London, and "The Burnt Part Boys" off-Broadway. "'War Horse' is my first play, professionally," Durand said. "But after all those musicals, I was ready for it."
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.