If "War Horse" wins a Tony award for best play, the person leaping to his feet at the Beacon Theatre to accept the honor is likely to be Seth Numrich, born and raised in the Twin Cities, where he was home-schooled before becoming the youngest-ever drama enrollee at Juilliard.

The lead actor in a 35-member company, Numrich (pronounced NOOM-rick) has accepted Drama Desk and other awards for the tender-hearted drama about a young man and his beloved horse ("played" by a life-sized puppet and its human handlers).

Even in a field full of people with interesting stories, Numrich's journey is unique. The 24-year-old stage phenom cut his theater teeth in the Twin Cities at Youth Performance Company (YPC), History Theatre and the Guthrie before moving to New York at 16 to study at Juilliard.

In "War Horse," adapted from Michael Morpurgo's children's story, Numrich plays a young man whose horse, Joey, is sold into the British cavalry in the run-up to World War I. Although younger than the required age, Albert enlists in the army to find Joey.

"'War Horse' is probably the finest, most profound and moving production I've ever seen, and the lead is played wonderfully by this talented local kid," said veteran actor Allen Hamilton, who recently saw the show. "And it has such a powerful, moving performance by this local kid."

Sharing stages with masters

Broadcast tonight on CBS, the 65th annual Tony Awards will have such star presenters as Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams, Brooke Shields, Chris Rock, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Daniel Radcliffe and Al Pacino.

Last year, Numrich made his Broadway debut, acting with Pacino in "The Merchant of Venice."

"As a performer, Mr. Pacino is absolutely breathtaking," Numrich said by phone last week from New York. "He's 70 years old and one of the most famous actors on the planet. So, he didn't need to be doing Shakespeare here in New York. But he's really dedicated, and it was an extraordinary experience to watch him every night continue to explore his character, find new things and new lights in Shylock."

If Numrich is a spongy learner, it may have something to do with his curiosity and his home-schooling by his actor/storyteller father, Charles Numrich, and nurse practitioner mother, Ann Griggs. Theater was a big part of his education, he said.

"Every show you do, you have to do research, and I love to dig into things," said Numrich. "I learned about World War II by doing 'Anne Frank.'"

Sudden 'Summer'

The clarifying experience for Numrich came in spring 1999 when he was cast as the young male lead in David Esbjornson's memorable production of Tennessee Williams' "Summer and Smoke" at the Guthrie. That show starred Laila Robins as repressed songbird Alma and Neil Maffin as John.

"I had been doing little things onstage here and there, and had accompanied my dad on his gigs, but suddenly I was around this amazing company and I realized that that's how they make their living," Numrich said. "That was the time I realized that I could be an actor, that this could be my life. I wanted to do as many plays as I could."

And he did, auditioning and winning roles for shows at History Theatre, Park Square, the Ordway and the Children's Theatre, among others. He acted in about a dozen productions at YPC (including a couple with fellow "War Horse" castmate Stephen Anthony). He impressed YPC founder and artistic director Jacie Knight.

"Seth was incredibly bright and very, very talented," Knight said. "And because his father is an actor, he had great support and understanding at home."

"When your kids are younger, you try to encourage them, but warn them that this is a tough life," said Charles Numrich, who is unable to go to New York for the ceremonies because he is playing Julius Caesar in various parks around the Twin Cities for Cromulent Shakespeare Theatre.

"As an artist, you realize that you're putting yourself into a system that is fickle. Your talent doesn't always get you what you want. But sometimes it just clicks. And it has for Seth."

When the Star Tribune spoke with Seth Numrich last week, he was sitting in a cafe across from Lincoln Center, which has become the nexus of his life in New York.

"Juilliard is just across the street," he said. "When I was studying, unlearning everything I learned in the Twin Cities, by the way, I used to look at the marquees over there and dream. Now, I'm on that stage there. It's like an out-of-body experience."