In the middle of the second act of the galvanizing, exhilarating “War Horse,” playing through Sunday at the Saenger Theatre, one of the supporting animals of the tale breathes its last.
As the horse expires and comes to its final rest, three puppeteers rise from its still frame, take a slight pause, and walk backward into an enveloping darkness.
The moment leaves the viewer stunned and mournful, but simultaneously, it engenders, as the show does throughout, a deep love for the possibilities of theater.
The 2011 Tony Award Winner for Best Play, Nick Stafford’s adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s “War Horse” is the stirring story of a mount named Joey, a mix of thoroughbred and draft, and his owner Albert, played by a soulful and engaging Michael Wyatt Cox.
Beginning on the eve of World War I, the show leaps through time and space from the small British farm of Albert’s father Ted, a brutal but redeemable Chad Jennings, and into the Battle of the Somme.
It gallops across treacherous landscapes of barbed wire and machine gun fire until crossing into something approaching poetry.
Throughout it all, despite the calamitous waste that was the Great War, emerges a tale of humanity’s deep reservoir of decency in the face of unspeakable horror.
And that decency manifests itself time and time again in the presence of the magisterially realized horse, Joey.
A creation of Handspring Puppet Company and choreographed into reality by Toby Sedgwick, Joey was brought to life on the night I saw it by James Duncan, Brian Robert Burns, and Aaron Haskell, and his transformation from a foal into a grown hunter caused gasps and delighted shouts from an entranced audience.
Joey, along with three other fully realized horses, is the highlight of the event. And rightly so. Even when trying to focus on a single puppeteer within the beast, you will find yourself pulled back into its hesitant motions, its frightened rearing, and the stunning verisimilitude.
Any thoughts you might have about “War Horse” being for kids or it being a parlor trick will be quickly trampled under the deep affection you share with Albert for the horse he raises, trains, and learns to love.
But to call it a puppet show is to do it a deep disservice.
The National Theatre of Great Britain’s sprawling epic springs from a distant era where theater pulled so hard at the bridle of its ambitions that it was forced to invent movies.
Director Bijan Sheibani employs every theatrical trick at his disposal. It is a melodrama in the best sense, with not only puppets but also projections, songs, deep shadows and blinding lights all in the service of an intimate story about the lengths men will go to so as to recover their humanity.
Because of this, the entire production team, including lighting designer Paule Constable and set/costume designer Rae Smith, deserves equal star billing with the human factor on the stage.
That being said, none of the staggering legerdemain would have a pip of impact were it not for the terrific performances that populate “War Horse.”
Brendan Murray walks the finest of lines in creating a cavalry officer who is both by-the-book and a hopeless romantic.
Andrew Long does sharp double duty as a scheming uncle and a gruff but heroic sergeant, and he is matched in intensity by Michael Stewart Allen as a cruel German who nonetheless is capable of mercy.
Along with Cox as Albert, there are two other great performances.
As Captain Friedrich Muller, Andrew May effortlessly radiates weary decency as an officer who turns on the war and finds salvation in Joey.
His budding friendship with French child Emilie, a playful turn by Ka-Ling Cheung, becomes an oasis of sanity in the growing madness of poison gas, shell fragments, and pecking vultures.
The other crusher of a performance comes from Maria Elena Ramirez as Albert’s mother, Rose. Despite her limited stage time, Ramirez creates a full character by playing against easy archetypes in giving an edge of flint to her matronly instincts.
Space does not afford mentioning the remarkable ensemble work done by the rest of the company. About the best I can do is to tell you to see them for yourself before the opportunity rides away.