“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” Engages the Intellect and Emotions @ Steppenwolf for Young Adults

3.5 stars out of 4

Mark Haddon’s 2003 novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is presented as murder mystery novel written by Christopher John Francis Boone, aged 15 years, three months and two days. Simon Stephens has preserved Christopher’s voice and much of the dialogue in the book in his play (as well as the appendix). Christopher has a unique perspective on the world—he prefers math, outer space and computers, things that can be understood and that follow patterns that can be learned, unlike the messy and confusing world of humans. Even dogs like Wellington and rats like Toby, who is clean and does not carry the bubonic plague, are easier to understand than humans. When Wellington is murdered, Christopher sets out to find the dog’s killer, using techniques gleaned from Sherlock Holmes. But one mystery leads to another, and Christopher must confront his fears and confusion, and learn some hard lessons about the humans he loves, before his search comes to an end. Playwright Simon Stephens, like Mark Haddon, allows us to see the world through Christopher’s eyes, while also showing how difficult it can be for those around him to accept the way that Christopher relates to them. Helmed by Jonathan Berry, Steppenwolf for Young Adults brings Christopher’s story to life, with a prismatic performance by Terry Bell as Christopher at its center. 

Jonathan Berry, a veteran director of both Steppenwolf for Young Adults and Simon Stephens’ plays, puts the focus of this production, on Christopher, his family, and the teacher who helps mediate between the world Christopher sees and the one that others he encounters perceive. Berry gives us access to Christopher’s perspective through a spare, ever-shifting scenic and lighting design by Brandon Wardell, which is reconfigured in sometimes disorienting ways by the ensemble, assisted by the movement creation of Dan Plehal, who also helps capture Christopher’s relationship to his space. Joseph Burke’s projections and Pornchanok Kanchanabanca’s sound design allow the audience insights into Christopher’s intellectual and emotional world—the logic of the stars and mathematical patterns that contrasts with the overwhelming man-made world that threatens to overwhelm the clear geometry that Christopher tries to impose on it. Stephanie Cluggish’s costumes ground the characters that become more clearly defined in Christopher’s mind, while creating patterns of shape and color for those that become part of the teeming mass of humanity that muddles his attempts to unravel the mysteries he encounters. Though engaging throughout and told with a great deal of humor, despite Christopher’s inability to tell or understand jokes, it is only as the tension between the worlds of the characters becomes painfully overt in the second act that the poignancy of Christopher’s and his parents’ attempts to connect becomes heartrendingly real.

The cast of Berry’s production is attuned to both the physical world they are part of creating, and to the empathetic characters of Stephens’ unjudgmental play. Terry Bell as Christopher Boone is an engaging and laser-sharp guide to a world that defies logic but still becomes more comprehensible when one is brave enough to ask questions. His highly physical, yet understated performance shows the care with which Christopher navigates what is a very confusing world of complex gestures, emotion and linguistic ambiguity, often by turning to the comfort of mathematical patterns. Except for Bell, the other ensemble members also become the strangers that make the world harder to understand, and they move easily between their roles. Caroline Neff, as Siobhan, exhibits the equally careful demeanor of the teacher who cares for her student and has studied how to communicate and understand him, but who also knows the limits of the support she can give him. She is radiantly affectionate and studiously matter-of-fact at once. As Christopher’s father, Ed, Cedric Mays shows the lengths to which his character has gone in creating a comfortable world of timetables and landmarks for his son, even though it has meant translating his own feelings into symbols. Mays allows his character’s emotional distress to show through, as well as the love that keeps him from losing it. Rebecca Spence as Christopher’s mother, Judy, likewise demonstrates the compassion in her character, even as she allows the audience to see her inability to function in Christopher’s world. Eunice Woods is the justifiably resentful Mrs. Shears, Wellington’s owner, who also supported Christopher and his father after Judy died. Wood also shines as a slightly harried, well-intentioned and somewhat clueless principal.  Scott Allen Luke as Mrs. Shear’s husband, Roger, shows his desire to take charge of a series of situations that has left him out of his depth on every level. Meg Thalken, as neighbor Mrs. Alexander, conveys her character’s compassion for and inability to reach out to Christopher. Christopher M. Walsh is empathetic and humorous as various characters perplexed and vexed by Christopher’s unique view of the world, including a policeman and reverend, many of whom speak in the metaphors that Christopher finds particularly incomprehensible.

Though perhaps not as spectacular as the Broadway production, Steppenwolf for Young Adults’  production—though parents should be wary of taking children younger than middle school, and adults need not worry about bringing a young companion--of Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a compassionate, moving and surprisingly humorous portrait of a teenager with an extraordinary mind coming into his own, and the people in his life who do their best to support him. With an immersive sound design by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca and evocative projections by Joseph Burke to help guide the audience into Christopher’s mind, and an intensely focused and emotionally rich performance by Terry Bell as Christopher, this production offers an insightful glimpse into the ways that the world may appear to others and the value in understanding different perspectives. Director Jonathan Berry and a perfectly-cast ensemble eloquently make the case for attempting to communicate, even in the face of despair and betrayal, because our assumptions may not reflect the truth.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through October 27 at the Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, with school matinees Tuesdays-Fridays and public performances taking place Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Saturdays at 3 pm. The October 27 3 pm performance will be a relaxed/sensory-friendly performance. Tickets are $20 - $30 and available at 312-335-1650 or www.steppenwolf.org. For more information, visit www.steppenwolf.org or www.theatreinchicago.com. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Kerstin Broockmann spent years working in Chicago storefront theaters, mostly as a director, but also venturing into performing, designing lights and violence, stage management and writing/adaptation. Some of her favorite theatrical experiences include work with Azusa, Pyewacket, Rogue, A Sense of Urgency, The Strange Tree Group, Tinfish and Tripaway. She served for several years on the board of the Women’s Theater Alliance and helped coordinate the New Plays Workshop and Festival for two years, as well as editing and contributing to the WTA Newsletter for a spell. Now an AMS-Certified elementary teacher at Intercultural Montessori Language School, Kerstin’s directing work in recent years has been limited to staged readings, though she was also able to sneak in a production of Don Juan in Hell for Rogue Theater as well. A former amateur boxer, Kerstin has also written ringside reports for the blog Cyber Boxing Zone.