by Laurie Peckins
I had the wonderful opportunity to experience the Zach Theatre production by Simon Stephens of The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time, based on the 2003 mystery novel by Mark Haddon. The book was an international bestseller and the play won the 2015 Tony Award for Best New Play. I arrived early and enjoyed the special reception and live music before the show.
The storytelling is the highlight and follows the Sherlock Holmes mystery-solving style about a boy who is highly intelligent and great at math. The play begins with Christopher’s teacher reading a play within the play. Within the first scene you are introduced to fifteen year old Christopher as he is approached by a police officer. He is standing over Mrs. Spear’s dog Wellington who has been killed by a pitch fork. The officer starts asking Christopher many questions, and attempts to touch Christopher. It is obvious to the audience that Christopher is on the Autism spectrum from his verbal and physical responses. The officer is unaware of his challenges, and after Christopher hits him, he treats him like a criminal, and takes him to the police station. Christopher’s father arrives to pick him up. The officer warns him that hitting an officer is against the law, and that he needs to control his behavior in the future. Once at home Christopher suggests that he wants to investigate the murder of the dog against his father’s strong disapproval. Within a few days Christopher is told by his father that his mother is in the hospital, has had a heart attack and dies. As the story unfolds, Christopher decides to secretly investigate the murder of the dog. As he starts to leave his safe place at home, he attempts to question the neighbors about the evening the dog was killed. He is very uncomfortable talking to strangers, as he goes door to door in the neighborhood.
He meets Mrs. Alexander who implies that his mother was involved with the dog owners husband. Once at home, Christopher admits to his father that he is investigating the murder. Once again his father insists that he stop his investigation, and to never mention Mr. Spears’ name in his house. Christopher’s curiosity and unrelenting drive to uncover the mystery leads him to find a box of letters from his mother in his fathers room. She has really moved to London with Mr. Spears. Christopher confronts his father with his new discovery. Christopher’s father admits the affair between his mother and Mr. Spears, and that he killed the dog. This admission upsets Christopher so much that his father hits him. This sends Christopher into a rocking episode of disbelief and confusion. Alone in his room, Christopher bravely decides to travel to London to find his mother.
The sets were creatively used to show Christopher’s complex doors of perception and how confusing simple tasks can be for someone struggling with Autism. There were integral videos and moving sets to represent the journey. It also shows how most people he met along the way were unaware of this complex and fascinating spectrum of intelligence and interpreting the daily chaos of the world. Christopher remembers his strategy of left-right to help him navigate his way to his mother’s apartment. Christopher is reunited with his mother and makes a request to live with her and Mr. Spears. He no longer feels safe with his father. Christopher’s father shows up the next day and Christopher refuses to leave. Christopher has been studying for an advanced math test that he was planning to take at school.
After a trial stay in London, Christopher will now live with his father and his mother will live close by. Once at home, he takes the exam and passes with a perfect score. Christopher’s father gives him a puppy as a present as the story ends. After the curtain call, Christopher comes up from the stage to explain how he answered the most difficult math question.
Preston Straus is excellent in the leading role of Christopher portraying the obsessive behavior and the physical manifestations of autistic responses, including complete honesty, no filter and unintended violence. Katie Kohler in the role as the teacher narrates most of the play while preparing Christopher for his math exam. She also helps him to develop strategies to create some order to his overstimulated world. She recognizes and nurtures his unique brilliance. She also appreciates his honest and humorous observations.
I highly recommend this production at the Zach Theatre. It dives deep into issues in our country around humanity, health and acceptance. It highlights the value of one person making a difference to a child. It teaches tolerance and understanding and can benefit everyone. This is a must see for teachers and students alike.