Warning: This review contains spoilers for the plot of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
I first saw “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” during its national tour stop in Charlotte in February 2017. I sat in awe for the entire production, struck by both its story and the incredibly unique way the play sought to tell it through staging and special effects. It was emotionally compelling and visually immersive; I talked about it nonstop for the rest of the evening. Thus, when I walked into the Hadley Theater for Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte’s production, I was both nervous and excited to see how it would be transformed by this local professional theatre.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is based off the bestselling 2003 novel of the same name and was first translated into a play via a run in London in 2012. The West End production went on to win seven Olivier awards, while the Broadway transfer won five Tonys. It has largely been hailed as a triumph for excellence in casting, staging and special effects. “Curious Incident” tells the story of a boy named Christopher (Chester Shepard), who the author described as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties,” but has largely been interpreted by audiences to represent someone on the autism spectrum. It details his attempt to solve the murder of his next-door neighbor’s dog, Wellington, which results in the uncovering of family secrets, a solo adventure to London and a stressful A level examination. The play is self-aware, acknowledging that it is currently being performed on stage, and is narrated by Christopher’s teacher and mentor Siobhan (Megan Montgomery).
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte is a professional theatre company that is currently in the midst of its 30th season. After losing their home theater due to leasing issues, the company secured its survival by becoming the resident theatre company at Queens University of Charlotte. A triumph for the local theatre scene, this means ATC is now housed in the Hadley Theater, which is actually located in an elementary school. It’s a little disconcerting to walk into an elementary school hallway, one littered with artwork and jump rope awards, to see a show as technically advanced as this one. However, the Hadley Theater defies one’s expectations immediately upon entering and is a perfect new home for ATC.
The set is incredible. The boxlike, mostly-barren look is clearly inspired by the original, but is condensed and translated for a smaller and more intimate performance space. Using the cast and a small number of chairs, a table and other props, it is able to quickly transform into various spaces and scenes. It also takes advantage of a highly inventive and skilled technical crew. Projectors and lights are used to visually illustrate Christopher’s dreams as well as feelings of overstimulation. Loud sounds and physical choreography are also used to draw the audience into Christopher’s world. These are most on display in scenes where Christopher is panicking, such as one in which the entire stage flashes red and the score picks up. However, it is also used in more reflective parts of the show, such as when Christopher dreams of going to space or when illustrating the math problems he solves during his A level. This production design wants the audience to (at least try to) understand what the world looks and feels like to Christopher, and presents the world as he sees it. It is an absolutely impressive work of technical theater; this alone could set the play apart.
However, “Curious Incident” doesn’t need to rely on the technical aspect alone. It is in the hands of a strong and talented group of actors. Shepard plays the role of Christopher with grace and understanding, portraying his character as the full human being he is and not just focusing on what sets him apart. He does a great job of opening up Christopher’s way of seeing the world to the audience. Christopher’s relationship with Siobhan also takes center stage throughout the play, which means it is a fantastic thing that Shepard and Montgomery are able to play so well off of each other. Montgomery often lightens the mood with her narration and utter delight at Christopher’s writing while Christopher takes the audience back to the play at hand. It is a partnership that feels believable. However, while Shepard impresses in his starring role as Christopher, it truly feels like an ensemble production. In fact, I was most blown away by Christopher’s parents (Rob Addison and Becca Worthington). They paint his parents’ flaws strongly and clearly but also with an overarching feeling of empathy and compassion. There are many points within the show where you can see the hurt they’ve caused and feel righteously angry, only to be drawn back into their lives and connect to them again. It is a moving and powerful performance. Shawna Pledger as Mrs. Alexander also delivers a strong comedic turn in an emotionally-heavy play.
Despite the play’s widespread success, it has not gone without criticism, especially from those within the autism and Asperger’s communities. Christopher, and the characters around him, never explicitly state what his diagnosis is (or if he has one). However, the novel/play has largely been hailed for its depiction of neurodivergent people and originally included the word “Asperger’s” on the back cover. This has led to both support and criticism from autism and Asperger’s advocates, which have especially criticized the novel’s author (Mark Haddon) for his own admitted lack of research into the subject and the play for not casting neurodivergent people as Christopher. Haddon has since distanced himself from an official diagnosis, stating that he is not an expert on the subject and that an official label would take away from the story. Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte seems to be more aware of these concerns and has partnered with Southeast Psychology for this production. In a promotional video, they urge audience members to “read, search, and learn” about Christopher’s “neuro-tribe.” They are also offering a sensory-friendly performance on Oct. 27.
While the program for the show includes a quote stating that “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is “a story about difference,” I’d argue that it is also a show that celebrates and embraces family. It functions as a portrait not only of Christopher, but of the individuals around him that create his world. This includes his parents, Siobhan and his lonely neighbor Mrs. Alexander. All of them — with the exception of Mr. Shears (Jeremy Decarlos) — are treated with respect and understanding. Especially in regards to Christopher’s parents, the show recognizes their flaws and (serious) mistakes, yet still finds room for forgiveness and a path to redemption. This capacity for forgiveness hits the other major theme: one of hope. It is a guiding thesis here, underscored by Christopher’s final line, asking if he can do anything. It is so hopeful it hurts, because the audience knows that there are unfair societal limitations on Christopher. But for now, Christopher and his family are working on fixing things together. He has his family in the same city, a dog, two more A levels to take and a dream of becoming an astronaut. He is in a good and hopeful place, and I’m happy to exist there with him.