Its title notwithstanding, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has little to do with either dogs or nighttime. Instead, the Tony-winning stage adaptation by Simon Stephens of a novel by Mark Haddon is an epic journey, in which an engaging young hero must undergo adversity, overcome nearly insurmountable obstacles, and face his greatest fears, all in pursuit of a noble goal.
Yet Christopher is no traditional epic hero, but rather a quirky 15-year-old English boy wrongly accused of killing a neighbor’s dog, and most of those obstacles and fears are internal, because Christopher lives with a never-specifically defined type of autism, possibly Asperger syndrome. He’s gifted in math and science, and quite eloquent when writing in his journal, but human interactions often frustrate him and emotional moments can become overwhelming. Nevertheless, Christopher sets out to solve the mystery of the dog’s demise, uncovering secrets vastly more intricate and impactful in the process.
Program notes for Trustus Theatre’s current production indicate that Beck-Ryan Chandler, who portrays Christopher, is also a teen living with autism, but his performance last week was as professional and winning as one could desire, portraying Christopher as sweet, logical and methodical. The story was told from his viewpoint, sometimes spoken by the actor, and sometimes by his teacher Siobhan (Libby Hawkins), who read aloud from Christopher’s first-hand account. The result worked on two levels: The audience saw the importance of coping skills that the protagonist learned from his mentor, and the narrative — which at times became rather talky — grew livelier with another actor’s participation.
Scott Pattison and Raia Jane Hirsch as Christopher’s father and mother were up to the steep challenge of creating sympathetic characters who had serious shortcomings as parents. Both performers created credible, three-dimensional human beings on stage who at least seemed to love Christopher, who appeared to have genuine remorse for their actions, and who evidently bent over backwards to provide appropriate care and support for their son for the vast majority of his life. Their flaws as parents were all too understandable, and only increased the appeal and relatability of Christopher’s condition. Who hasn’t withdrawn from the touch of someone who has said something cruel, and who hasn’t at some point in life wanted to curl up into a ball and just cry non-verbally? Seen from his perspective, many of Christopher’s seemingly odd reactions were revealed as human ones instead.
Michael Hazin, Christine Hellman, Clint Poston, Donna McKenna, Tashera Pravato-Hutcheson, and G. Scott Wild comprised an ensemble billed as “Voices,” turning up in brief bits as assorted neighbors and commuters encountered in Christopher’s journeys. McKenna was especially enjoyable as an elderly neighbor willing to roll with Christopher’s eccentricities. These six actors also functioned as the voices and movements of humanity in general, which sometimes threatened to engulf Christopher with their complexity.
That complexity was the central focus of Baxter Engle’s hi-tech scenic design. Action played out on a bare stage, in front of a large screen onto which images and animation were projected, reflecting the manner in which the protagonist processed information. As a result, when Christopher tried to navigate unfamiliar terrain, the audience was able to see the mathematical angles and formulas that helped him create order from chaos. When he waxed philosophically about the mysteries of the galaxy, helpful star charts appeared to illustrate his point. The effect was realized most impressively with diagrams representing the interiors of trains and subway cars, as if Christopher were inside an engineering schematic.
Elements of Engle’s set became props as well, with slender panels and cubes removed from the floor by the cast and cleverly used to represent items such as luggage and furniture before returning to become part of the stage floor again. I’m unsure if this is some new technique now common in New York, or if Engle invented a practical special effect. Either way, it worked.
Original electronic music by Tom Beard and Tyler Matthews helped to emphasize the digital vibe of the production, but a gentle harp effect was a nice accompaniment for a moving speech by Hirsch.
With intermission, Curious Incident runs close to two and a half hours, and it’s a lot of talking about feelings, interspersed with occasional vignettes of stylized action, which director Chad Henderson has devised as a surreal analog for the protagonist’s perspective. At its core, however, the play is an in-depth look — sometimes amusing, sometimes deeply sad and moving — at the conflicting emotions within a fractured family unit, as experienced by a boy who is already contending with how to handle the emotions that occur in daily existence.
While plot twists abound, it’s no spoiler to reveal that epic heroes always prevail, making this incident an ultimately uplifting affirmation of the resilience of the human spirit.
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