(Disclaimer – I was provided two complimentary tickets to War Horse by the Civic Center of Des Moines)
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I sat down for Tuesday night’s opening night performance of War Horse at the Civic Center. I was well aware of the Steven Spielberg film adaptation that came out at this time last year, later receiving 6 Academy Award nominations. Apart from knowing of the film, I didn’t know much of the story of War Horse aside from it involving horses sent to the front lines of the first World War.
We’re transported to England in 1912. At the beginning of the play, we see an a awkward foal being sold at auction. It’s purchased for a town-record price by Ted, mostly as a way to best his brother, Arthur. Ted brings the horse home to the dismay of his wife, but to the delight of his son, Albert. Albert and the foal, named Joey, become fast friends. Joey is primarily used as a riding horse around the farm which is ideal for Albert, but makes the family no money. Joey cost the family much of the money they had, so the horse has to be able to start pulling its own weight. Arthur and Ted set a bet that Joey can’t be made into a horse fit to plough in a week’s time. Should Albert lose, the horse becomes Arthur’s property. Should Joey prove that he can plough, Arthur must pay Ted the same amount that he paid for the horse originally.
After the bet is settled, Albert thinks that he and Joey have been spared separation and are set to continue their lives when Ted makes a life-altering decision to sell Joey to the army for use in the war against Germany. Albert is made a promise that Joey will be watched over and cared for by Lieutenant Nicholls. When tragic news makes its way to Albert about Lieutenant Nicholls and Joey, he takes a drastic step to try to be reunited with his beloved horse. We then see the war from the perspective of both Joey and Albert as we wonder throughout whether they will have their reunion before it’s too late for one or both of them.
The first thing that you’ll notice about War Horse is that the “horses” are controlled by actual people, as are all of the animals throughout the performance. It’s not as if the humans are trying to be hidden. It’s obvious they’re there. But if you’re like me and most of the people around me at the Civic Center that night, after a while, you forget that the humans are there and you BELIEVE that those are real horses. That will show you’ve truly bought into this story.
War Horse far exceeded my expectations. It’s a touching story that has gone untold for far too long. The story of Joey was undoubtedly repeated hundreds of times over during the first World War. You find yourself rooting for Joey and Albert to reunite safely, just like you would for any two lost friends or a couple in any number of romantic comedy movies. I’m thrilled that this production was brought to Des Moines and it’s yet another brilliant show from the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines.