Where: Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through Oct. 27 (call about public performances)
By ANNE SPISELMAN
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is an apt choice to open a Steppenwolf for Young Adults season exploring the question: When you feel lost, how do you find your way?
Based on Mark Haddon’s acclaimed 2003 novel, Simon Stephens’ play is a coming-of-age tale about a 15-year-old boy who perceives the world very differently from many of us and has to learn to navigate both his physical surroundings and adult lies and deceptions. It originated at the National Theatre in London in 2012, opened on Broadway in 2014, came to Chicago’s Oriental Theatre in late 2016, and has racked up accolades and awards, among them five Tony Awards including Best Play.
The version at Steppenwolf directed by Jonathan Berry doesn’t have the scenic bells and whistles or special effects of those other productions, but it does benefit from the intimacy of the Downstairs Theatre. We see Christopher John Francis Boone (Terry Bell) close up and get a good sense of his perspective as the Sherlock Holmes-loving teenager (the title comes from a Holmes story) sets about solving the murder of his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, which leads him to a deeper mystery and on his first trip alone from his home in Swinton to London about 70 miles away.
Although it’s not specified in the script, Christopher has what’s often been called Autism Spectrum Disorder but at Steppenwolf is referred to as “neurodiversity.” He’s touch-averse, has trouble dealing with people, doesn’t grasp common concepts (for example, he hates “metaphor)”, is given to screaming fits when crossed, is incapable of lying, and is easily subject to sensory overload because, as he tells us
himself, he “sees everything,” not just what most people “glance” at. He’s also a math prodigy who finds comfort in prime numbers and contemplating the stars. And he loves his pet rat, Toby.
Haddon’s novel is written in the first person, and Stephens tries to achieve the same effect in two ways. In the first act, Siobhan (Caroline Neff), Christopher’s special-education teacher and one of the very few people he trusts, is reading from the book that she’s apparently been encouraging him to write, and the narrative sort of goes back and forth between them. In the second, she and others at the school want him to turn his book into a play, and though he’s against it, that seems to have happened, because the fourth wall is broken as he bosses around the “actors,” for example, telling one he can’t play a policeman.
This device comes across as rather awkward, but the idea that what we’re seeing may be a school show does justify the makeshift production values. Brandon Wardell’s scenic design consists mostly of a handful of narrow screens and a bunch of boxes of various sizes that are moved around to create rooms, steps, and such. His lighting design ranges from on the mark to off the wall. Stephanie Cluggish’s costumes keep it simple and casual. Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s sound design and original music only occasionally rise to the heights they should. The most effective element is Joseph Burke’s projections, which more often than not capture what Christopher is experiencing—from his visual confusion in the Underground to the static in his mind.
Christopher’s story opens with him finding Mrs. Shear’s (Eunice Woods) dog with a garden fork plunged in its side. She thinks he’s killed Wellington (for reasons that become clearer later) and calls a policeman (Christopher M. Walsh), resulting in the boy getting a “caution” and being sent home with his father, Ed (Cedric Mays).
Falsely accused, Christopher becomes obsessed with finding the dog’s killer and bringing him to justice. His father, a single parent whose wife (Rebecca Spence) died of a heart attack (or so he’s told his son), forbids him to pursue his investigation but he does anyway, mostly by questioning the neighbors, among them talkative old Mrs. Alexander (Meg Thalken), who offers him tea and cakes.
Then Christopher discovers something that turns his whole world upside down and destroys his belief in his father. This sends him on his journey to London, every step of which is harrowing, from walking
to the Swinton train station to riding the London tube.
How he works his way back home is a complicated process, but he’s strongly motivated by a desire to take his A-level math exams, something he seems to forget briefly in his distress. Berry’s direction focuses not only on his coping mechanisms and new self-confidence, but also on re-establishing family relationships, particularly with his father.
Making his Steppenwolf debut in a very difficult role, Bell gives a good performance as Christopher and gets nice support from the rest of the cast, which beside those mentioned, includes Scott Allen Luke as Roger Shears and a cute-as-a-button puppy named Tod Doodle. The only thing that really bothered me is that their English accents are all over the place, except for Tod, of course.
Dark patches notwithstanding, “Curious Incident” is an uplifting affirmation of the belief that a determined person can do anything. Be sure to stick around after the curtain call for the most joyous proof of a Pythagorean theorem you’re likely to see.