Christopher Boone, the central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, can solve the most difficult math problems and explain recent scientific discoveries while minutely observing the details of the landscapes around him. But when it comes to comprehending the feelings of other people, looking someone in the eye, or allowing himself to be physically touched, he freezes.
Simon Stephens's award-winning, theatrical adaptation of Christopher's saga, based on Mark Haddon's novel, has moved from London and New York to regional theater. The SpeakEasy Stage production focuses on the adolescent Christopher, a young man seemingly on the autism spectrum (Christopher's condition is never identified by name), and the dilemmas he encounters while navigating a world that does not conform to his needs. Staged in the small theater at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, this production brings Christopher into intimate contact with the audience, seated on three sides of the stage.
The play opens with Christopher's startling discovery of a dead dog. Mrs. Shears (Christine Power), the dog's owner, asks Christopher (Eliott Purcell) if he has killed the dog, and he denies knowing anything about it. However, the dog's death sets Christopher on a quest to find the killer. Along the way he accosts a policeman, interviews the neighbors, and upsets everyone he meets, including his father, Ed (Craig Mathers), who is trying to raise the boy himself. Ed has told Christopher a lie, namely, that his mother, Judy (Laura Latreille), is dead. When Christopher discovers otherwise, he sets out for London to find her. His journey is especially difficult for a child who cannot easily navigate crowds, trains, or ATM machines.
Paul Daigneault directs the work, aided enormously by Yo-El Cassell in moving a shape-shifting troupe of performers around the stage to re-create the universe of Christopher's mind. The actors transform into automobile headlights, refrigerator doors, and microwave ovens as well as the neighbors on Christopher's street. Christopher and Justin Swader have designed a set that includes a high wall dotted with a series of changing colored squares, over a low platform, with lighting design by Jeff Adelberg. The stage floor serves as a large chalkboard for Christopher to jot mathematical formulas and notes for his journal.
Purcell is superb in his portrayal of Christopher, employing a hunched-over posture, as if his body were helping him decide which way to go, and delivering his lines carefully and emphatically. When agitated, he either rubs his hands compulsively along his legs or rolls into a sobbing, fetal ball. The demands on his caregivers, especially his parents, Ed and Judy, are sympathetically drawn by Mathers and Latreille in a dual portrait of two well-meaning but flawed people who can calm their son only by touching the tips of their fingers gently to his. Christopher's teacher, Siobhan (Jackie Davis), however, is both realistic and firm, giving him the grounding that his parents are unable to provide.
Without diminishing Christopher's dignity or the kindness of the people around him, the SpeakEasy production is especially effective in its playful approach to the serious problems that a special-needs person must overcome to function in a hostile environment. The imaginative use of the fine troupe of actors and Purcell's empathic performance bring this unlikely tale to what might be considered a happy ending.
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