This illusion is essential to one’s enjoyment of the touring “War Horse” that had its official local opening Thursday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Based on a novel by Michael Morpurgo that was also developed into a 2011 Oscar-nominated movie by Steven Spielberg, this gritty, at times violent fairy tale succeeds more on the basis of its visual lyricism than any of its literary qualities.
That’s because the only characters who feel completely fleshed out in Nick Stafford’s script are the ones constructed from fabric and metal. The many humans inhabiting the extraordinary landscape created by set and costume designer Rae Smith and the animators at 59 Productions are by and large schematic devices for the advancement of “War Horse’s” super-sentimental plot.
Rest assured: That plot — stretched over the course of two acts almost to the limits of its viability — pays off in the end, big time. If you’re not drying your eyes at the resolution of the story of the quest by English farm boy Albert Narracott (Andrew Veenstra) to scour the battlefields of France for his beloved horse, Joey, you might have to question whether you’re the one with the heart of steel.
Most plays these days would be swallowed up whole by the epic expanse of the Opera House. “War Horse” is the exception. It’s a play with an opera’s outsize claim on the senses. Once again, though, audibility is a problem in the space; the rural British and French accents affected by some of the actors render dialogue unintelligible. Music remains an important element here, delivered through Adrian Sutton’s motion-picture-like underscoring and the folk-singing of the mellifluous John Milosich, veteran of Washington’s own Synetic Theater. But it is the orchestration of images that gives “War Horse” a certain grandeur.
The drama charts the deep connection Albert forges with Joey, raising him on a farm in Devon, and his profound despair after his father, a man of textbook callousness portrayed by Todd Cerveris, sells the horse to the British army for service in France. The teenage Albert surreptitiously enlists and heads to the front to look for Joey, who, meanwhile, is captured by the Germans. He comes under the protection of a kindly captain (the excellent Andrew May), who is apparently unaware that in war stories, a German officer is supposed to be some kind of sadist.