Story: Christopher is alarmed when he finds Mrs. Shears’ dog, Wellington, impaled with a gardening tool in her back yard. Although he loved Wellington, 15-year-old Christopher is accused of slaying his neighbor’s pet.
He insists that he is not guilty. “I did not kill Wellington,” he says, “and I always tell the truth.” He won’t look Mrs. Shears in the eye, because direct eye contact is something he cannot do. Nor does he allow people to touch him, which leads to a confrontation when he strikes an investigating police officer who grabs him.
Christopher determines to solve the mystery of Wellington’s death on his own, following the deductive reasoning of his hero, Sherlock Holmes. This forces Christopher out of his comfort zone, which consists of the home he shares with his dad Ed and his special needs school in Swindon, some 80 miles from London. Ed and Christopher have lived alone since Ed shared the news that Christopher’s mother Judy had died of a heart attack a few years earlier.
Eventually, Christopher uncovers a number of secrets with his sleuthing skills, secrets that may complicate his goal of taking his A-level tests years early. That goal is something that Siobhan, his teacher and mentor at the Swindon special school, knows is of utmost importance to Christopher. Even she, though, may not realized just how vital those tests are to her prized student.
Highlights: The Rep drops the curtain on its 51st season with the nation’s first regional theater production of this Tony Award-winning Best Play by Simon Stephens. Thanks to the guidance and insight of director/choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge, Rep audiences can see first-hand a dazzling and intellectually stimulating interpretation of this complex, moody masterpiece, accentuated by Nick LaMedica’s arresting performance in the lead role.
Other Info: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has a legion of faithful followers who read the original novel by Mark Haddon, which differs somewhat from the play written by Simon Stephens. In his letter to subscribers, Rep artistic director Steven Woolf quotes Haddon as saying “I insist that the novel is about difference, not disability, not just because I want to keep it out of the ‘issue novel’ ghetto, though I do, but because Christopher’s world is not one defined by constriction and deficit.”
In his program notes Woolf adds that “Christopher also struggles processing some everyday situations and exhibits characteristics and actions that many would associate with autism.” Further, the word ‘autism’ is in big, bold letters in a display in The Rep’s lobby, and Woolf writes that “To aid us in preparation and understanding all the issues Christopher’s story presents, we have had...a good deal of support locally from the (Easter Seals) Midwest Autism Division.”
Whatever. Stephens’ play won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in London’s West End in 2013 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2015. In Stephens’ adaptation, Christopher’s first-hand narrative about his quest to solve Wellington’s murder is enacted as a play-within-a-play, with Siobhan reading Christopher’s journal while other teachers at Christopher’s school play parts.
While The Rep secured the rights to this drama, it could not obtain permission to use the original design concept. Therefore, Dodge and her designers, including scenic designer Narelle Sissons, lighting designer Matthew Richards, sound designer David Bullard and costume designer Leon Wiebers, have created their own imaginative and stylized method for conveying the complexities of Christopher’s mind and psyche.
It’s revealing how Dodge’s moves and Bullard’s background sound are jarring and cacophonous in the first act, becoming more structured and melodious in the second as Christopher continues his quest for truth. Dodge expertly utilizes her entire cast of supporting players to engage in ritualized movements which surround or invade Christopher’s territory. Richards’ abrupt flashes of light introduce different scenes in arresting fashion to underscore story elements.
LaMedica anchors the presentation with an affecting, thoroughly convincing portrayal of Christopher, highlighted by poignant scenes when he is reached as effectively as possible with the touch of fingertips. He conveys the central character’s intensity and fierce focus while also revealing the lad’s need for contact, even if it’s his pet rat Toby. It’s an achingly wrought interpretation.
Amy Blackman does wonderful work as Christopher’s haunted mother Judy and Jimmy Kieffer manages to show both the goodness and violent frustrations of his father Ed. Kathleen Wise shrewdly shows the cool persuasion of Siobhan in her practical answers to Christopher’s queries as well as in her narration.
An ensemble of performers portray a number of minor characters, such as Dale Hodges as kindly neighbor Mrs. Alexander, Laiona Michelle as the angry and bitter Mrs. Shears, Dathan Williams as the head of the Swindon school, Kevin Cutts as neighbor Roger Shears, Michael Baxter as a Swindon police officer and Ka-Ling Cheung as different women approached by Christopher for directions in London.
Especially worthy of note is Sissons’ amazing set design, which is filled on a towering background with mathematical equations, formulas and series of numbers, all of which inhabit Christopher’s brilliant mind, as well as a number of “toys” which can be configured to represent sundry scenes in the play.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time might conjure memories of Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind or Deanna Jent’s moving drama, Falling. That’s flattering company for this invigorating and poignant portrayal of a singular young man who functions differently but, as Haddon says, “sees things of overpowering beauty to which many of us will remain forever blind.”
Play: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Company: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through October 1
Tickets: $18-$89; contact 968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jerry Naunheim Jr.