(l to r) Scott Allen Luke, Eunice Woods, Caroline Neff, Terry Bell, Christopher M. Walsh and Meg Thalke in Steppenwolf for Young Adults’ ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
By Becky Sarwate
Steppenwolf for Young Adults (SYA) opens its 2018/2019 season with a take on the 2015 Tony Award-winning Best Play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Written by playwright Simon Stephens, the lauded New York production received a rave by The Broadway Blog during its initial run.
Based on the acclaimed young adult novel by Mark Haddon, the play centers on Christopher, a 15-year-old British boy who exhibits characteristics recognized as lying somewhere along the autism spectrum. He is gifted in math and science, even as he struggles with human interaction and touch. However, when it comes to animals, including his beloved pet rat Toby, or Wellington, the neighbor’s dog, Christopher is all warmth and heart. His social challenges are offset by an endearing and refreshing honesty, as well as a compulsion to uncover truths. Christopher’s adolescent complications make him an Encyclopedia Brown for the ostracized set.
Wellington’s curious death opens the play’s action, immediately generating a mystery and grief that forebode more sophisticated problems with which Christopher will wrestle. Steppenwolf newcomer Terry Bell, an ensemble member of Chicago’s Strawdog Theatre Company, wears the character affectionately, like a colorful and comfortable sweater. The actor hits all the right high and low notes, providing insight into the internal and external nuances that make life difficult for Christopher, even as he undertakes a journey of honesty that more socialized peers might never attempt.
Supplementing the production dialogue attributed to Christopher is Caroline Neff, a Steppenwolf ensemble member and veteran dramatic chameleon. Here the actress adopts an English lilt to portray Siobhan, Christopher’s special education teacher and a full-throated supporter of his creativity and steps toward independence. Reading aloud from her student’s book as he travels through his neighborhood, and eventually the big city, to find answers, Ms. Neff conveys Siobhan’s faithfulness and affection toward her charge by keeping her character firmly – but powerfully — along the periphery.
Steppenwolf’s production, helmed by Director Jonathan Barry, keeps what is great about the original staging mostly intact. For example, the work is no musical, but it definitely has rhythm. Movement Consultant Dan Plehal turns ensemble cast members into fulcrums and pulleys, deployed effectively to lift Christopher into the air in concert with manic descriptions of his dreams and wishes. For example, in Act I, Mr. Bell is balanced on an actor’s feet as Christopher describes the weightlessness and pleasant solitude he might enjoy as an astronaut. In these scenes, the audience is reminded that Christopher is a complex genius, but also still very much a child. Even the most literal of young minds still has a capacity for fancy.
By the end of the play, Christopher has physically and emotionally stretched himself in new directions that none in his circle could have rightly anticipated. He enacts change within his family circle, community, and his own formerly very rigid and linear worldview. To be spoiler-free in this review, it’s enough to say that his fractious parents Ed (Cedric Mays) and Judy (Rebecca Spence) find themselves outwitted by Christopher, leading them toward better versions of themselves and allowing them to serve as more persuasive behavioral models for their son.
Running a little over two and a half hours with one intermission, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a touching, funny and at times heartbreaking crowd pleaser for teen audiences and adults alike. The Steppenwolf Theatre SYA production is fully realized and dream-like, yet grounded in the mundane elements of social interaction that contribute to the pedestrian absurdity of daily living. Christopher is a unique character with universal, recognizable appeal.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre
1650 N Halstead, Chicago
Through October 27
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.