Having no previous knowledge of the “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” I can honestly say that watching this story unfold was an unforgettable experience. While at times confused and uncertain early on, I was completely hooked by intermission, feeling fully invested in these characters and their struggles.
Based on a 2003 novel by British author Mark Haddon, the play follows Christopher Boone, an intelligent and inquisitive 15-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder. At first focusing on Christopher’s attempts to unravel a mystery involving his neighbor’s slain dog, the play slowly progresses to become something much deeper and more beautiful, presenting a heart wrenching portrayal of how disability affects both the individual and the family.
The play moves between two distinct styles: a grounded, realistic approach whenever events are shown from the adult point of view and a whimsical stylization reminiscent of children’s television programming whenever from the point of view of Christopher. By seeing the differences between how Christopher perceives his environment and how adults view him, audiences can understand his reactions and his personality.
Despite the minimal set, the show was able to achieve a great feeling of immersion thanks in large part to the outstanding sound design by Mack Gauthier. One of the most impressive elements of Gauthier’s sound design was her ability to convey the sensory overload occasionally experienced by Christopher due to his disability, most notably in the train station sequence. The cacophony of dissonant sounds disorients the audience and helps them see the world the way Christopher does, allowing them to sympathize even more as he struggles to navigate an often harsh, confusing world while working to overcome the limitations of his condition.
“Christopher really likes video games, so I thought of his adventure as more of a video game almost. I liked a lot of the synthetic sounds that come from video games themselves, so that’s how I started to design,” Gauthier said on her approach to composing all of the sounds herself.
This style worked very well with the aesthetic of the show, further placing you in Christopher’s own perspective and granting the production a unique auditory feel.
Just like the talent behind the scenes, the performers on stage turned out excellent work, each being given a chance to shine in some capacity due to the unique way roles were filled. Outside of the four main leads, the show had a background cast of six actors and actresses who cycled through a variety of parts as the show progressed, often switching roles within the amount of time required to put on an extra sweater or a new shirt. While individually they all represented multiple characters, they often worked as a collective to bring to life Christopher’s emotions through body language and facial expressions. These scenes were great sources of both drama and comedy, as their presence could double down on the power of any emotionally wrought scenes or could serve to provide terrific physical comedy (in some scenes acting as inanimate objects Christopher interacts with).
Serving as the story’s narrator was Christopher’s special education teacher, Siobhan, played by drama student Thalia Eddy. Siobhan often appears as a sort of conscience to Christopher, a manifestation of Christopher’s desire for validation and comfort. This meant that Eddy had to alternate between playing the real Siobhan in some scenes and Christopher’s internalized version of Siobhan in others.
“One thing I did was I thought about all the people who calm me down. Who are the people you trust the most and can go to and open up about these things,” Eddy said about her process of finding the character. Some examples she gave were past therapists and social workers, but one which stood out was her aunt, a special education teacher herself.
“I talked with her a lot about what her schedule was like and what her relationship was like with her students and what it was like to form those deep connections. […] The goal is to be a part of society and learn how to deal with your emotions in a healthy way,” Eddy said.
Apart from Siobhan, the main influences on Christopher are his parents, Ed and Judy, played beautifully by veteran actors Joe Cassidy and Margot White, respectively. Both actors commented on the theme of moral ambiguity in messy family dynamics, remarking that their characters are imperfect but still deeply caring individuals.
“There’s really no sinners or saints in this show. There’s just humans,” Cassidy said. “There’s people doing their best, and they make, sometimes, terrible choices.”
“I have a line myself that ‘I was not a very good mother,’ but at the same time I’m a wonderful mother as best as I know how with circumstances that were unexpected and are not instinctual to me. Any motherly instinct is altered to suit your child, which is I think what parenthood is in general,” White said.
The idea that the show never apologizes for its characters’ behavior was key to Cassidy, as this shows the audience the characters are willing to take ownership for their own actions. The play never tells us who is right and who is wrong, instead presenting us with both sides and giving them equal care and attention.
While all of the performances and technical achievements are impressive in their own right, the linchpin of the entire show is the featured performance by Tyler Nowakowski as Christopher. At first, it was fairly jarring to see a college student in the role of a 15-year-old boy, yet Nowakowski’s performance was so strong that the actor soon fell away completely, and all I could see was Christopher.
In preparing for his role, Nowakowski began by watching the Netflix series “Atypical” and carrying out research online into children with autism. Just like Eddy, he found a great deal of inspiration from the special education classroom.
“I work as a substitute teacher in public schools when I’m on break, so I was able to work in some special education classrooms. I was focused on my job while I was there, but in the back of my mind I was watching and taking note of some things while I observed,” said Nowakowski. “The biggest thing was making sure it was authentic and I was doing justice to people who are on the spectrum. Everyone’s experience is different. Christopher is just one.”
After the show, I was able to speak with a few audience members to get their reactions. Overall, viewers uniformly praised the show.
“Holistically a consistently amazing production, from the technical aspects of light and sound to all of the performances,” Harry Wendorff, an eighth-semester acting student, said. “The show is really interesting in that it balances amazing kitchen-sink family drama with really cool ensemble and movement techniques, so it’s like two different style plays wrapped in one. Very well done, and of course the leading performance of Tyler Nowakowski was phenomenal.”
Fourth-semester scenic designer Kelly Daigneault commented on her connection to the show behind the scenes.
“I think that it’s really interesting to [see it] come together because I’ve been a part of a lot of the aspects and I’m friends with a lot of people who have designed on the show and worked on the show, and it’s really interesting to see the different levels of work,” Daigneault said. She also pointed out that, when rehearsing the show, feelings always came before anything else. “Christopher feels so much and it’s about connection. The first thing we did was connect with each other rather than work everything out.”
Looking back on the whole thing, Nowakowksi described the play as “an epic story.”
“It’s a journey […] Special needs children have the ability to do remarkable things ad they can function in ways that we can’t even imagine or that we don’t even think of,” Nowakowkski said.
He hopes audience members will be able to “really see what’s great about everyone being different and to know that everyone is capable of doing incredible things.”
“Never judge people before you really know them and can experience a conversation with them or see into their life,” Nowakowkski said.
“You never know what someone’s personal circumstances are, and so allowing someone their own personal successes are vital to allowing an individual to feel successful and to feel like they can do anything,” White added.
“Curious Incident” will be running in the Harriet S. Jorgensen Theatre until Sunday, March 8. The performance on Thursday, March 5 will be ASL interpreted, and Saturday, March 7, will feature a sensory friendly performance for audience members with autism. I strongly urge anyone reading this to attend a performance and support the Connecticut Repertory Theatre.
Thumbnail photo courtesy of Connecticut Repertory Theatre
Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.