- Courtesy Of Lindsay Raymondjack Photography
- From left: Justin D. Quakenbush, Ben Ash, James Cribbins and Hugh Davies
A playgoer decides whether to stand outside a story or plunge inside it. In Vermont Stage's production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, viewers will be rewarded for immersing themselves, and this production uses multiple media to make the experience especially full. The compelling story becomes an exploration of how viewers can experience a theatrical character's emotions.
A 15-year-old boy stands next to a dead dog, rendered as a stylized image. The dog has been dispatched with a pitchfork, still stuck in its side. The dog's owner, a neighbor of the boy, is appalled and furious. Still, she stifles a portion of her anger because she knows Christopher is disabled. He's mathematically gifted but is on the autism spectrum, and she assumes he lacks the understanding that killing a dog is wrong.
Christopher recoils from touch and can't look people in the eye. His connections to people, including his family, appear drained of emotion. But if we start seeing through his eyes, his relationship to reality reveals something about how all of us struggle to understand the world outside our heads.
Simon Stephens' adaptation of the novel by Mark Haddon offers an experiential view of how Christopher perceives. Using multiple narrative techniques, the script counts on the viewer to make sense of the boy's perspective — not quite to live it, but to let go of the kinds of comparisons that polarize differences. Set in the English working-class town of Swindon, Curious Incident was a success in London and later won the Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play in 2014.
Haddon's novel employed first person, a thread partially maintained in the play when Christopher's teacher, Siobhan, reads aloud from the boy's writings. Most exchanges are dramatized, while the narration establishes Christopher's understanding of what is taking place.
The character is sympathetic from his first response to the dog's death. No, he didn't do it, he explains to the neighbor, whose scoff Christopher doesn't comprehend. But he volunteers to solve the mystery, just as Sherlock Holmes would. And so Christopher earnestly, logically and steadfastly goes to work, even as everyone around him believes it's absurd for him to try.
That Christopher will solve this case and go on a long and risk-filled quest is the heroic spine of the play. But the fact that he never understands the dangers draws the viewer into his mind. We have to think as he does to follow the story and learn what his parents did to protect and to hurt him.
Director Jordan Gullikson surrounds sensitive performances with an array of storytelling devices to keep the audience invested in Christopher's experiences. The dialogue and acting style are realistic, but the scenes are conducted as brief vignettes, stylizing the sense of time and focus. Projections underscore some moments with abstract images. Movement from a chorus of six actors, choreographed by Jessie Owens, accompany the main action between Christopher and the people he encounters.
The performers in this chorus take up roles as police, neighbors and strangers, but as a group they are onstage to echo what Christopher experiences. When he's worried someone may harm him, they line up in boxing stances. When he's distressed, they walk in place with whirling twists. When it works it's wonderful, but the small, crowded stage sometimes renders the movement component more distracting than enriching.
The entire cast is strong, but the show rests on a powerful performance by James Cribbins as Christopher. Cribbins uses intense physical gestures, such as a repetitive, fretful kneading of his backpack's loose straps, to convey a character constantly working to process the world around him. He darts his eyes to orient himself, then pulls his gaze away from contact with people. With an elegant, quiet deadpan, Cribbins gives Christopher a tonic freshness.
As the boy's father, Christopher Harrod conveys a man of good intentions buried under anger and fear. Ed is a tough man, throttling back frustration yet capable of tenderness. Catherine Domareki is emotionally effective as Christopher's mother.
As Siobhan, Chris Caswell recites Christopher's thoughts, skillfully managing to be precise without sharpness and warm without sentimentality.
In gemlike performances, Molly Walsh, Ben Ash, Justin D. Quackenbush, Hugh Davies, Mary Krantz and Karen Lefkoe play the chorus and people Christopher encounters.
To produce the wide variety of settings, scenic designer Chuck Padula uses an assortment of boxes, most large enough to sit or stand on. These gray, geometric shapes only rarely match the contours of the furniture or structures they evoke. Christopher's house, for example, consists of apparently random rectangles and cylinders arranged at a slant, creating an unbalanced feeling.
But Christopher has one realistically depicted space. His school consists of an actual hinge-top desk placed on slightly misaligned planks of a wooden floor, evoking how clearly Christopher sees the classroom where he does high-level maths.
Projections designer Jess Wilson uses three screens on the back wall to show images metaphorically or literally linked to Christopher's thoughts. Repetition, patterns and odd shifts in color create a sense of Christopher's need to tame stimuli from both memory and experience.
The lighting, designed by Dan Gallagher, includes some special effects and encompasses Christopher's whipsaw journey through multiple moods and external dangers. Costume designer Suzanne Kneller defines all the characters Christopher encounters with strong clothing motifs, from accurate English police uniforms to telling details in sweaters, aprons and jackets.
Christopher never sees himself as helpless, though everyone around him believes he is. This production gives viewers a chance to surrender assumptions about autism and see Christopher as human without the lenses of comparison, toleration or pity. And the play's ending is one of the best in theater, filled with surprise and triumph.