Local Arts

Review: Charlotte theater’s version of ‘The Curious Incident’ gets to the heart

Chester Shepherd plays Christopher in “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
Chester Shepherd plays Christopher in “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Fenix Fotography

The Broadway version of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” won five Tonys (including best play) by getting us inside the head of 15-year-old Christopher Boone, whose behavior puts him on the autism-Asperger spectrum. (Neither playwright Simon Stephens nor novelist Mark Haddon specifies his illness.)

The Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte version, lacking the phenomenal and phenomenally expensive special effects of the national tour that came through in 2017, gets us inside Christopher’s heart.

Director/set designer Chip Decker does use 40 flashing lights and video panels to show the sensory overload Christopher experiences. Yet in intimate Hadley Theater, faces and feelings make more of an impact. We lose spectacle, we gain some spirit.

The title refers to “Silver Blaze,” the story where Christopher’s beloved Sherlock Holmes identifies a killer after a dog remains silent at night. In ”Incident,” a neighbor’s dog dies, and Christopher sets out to find the culprit. He discovers not only the murderer’s identity and the fate of his absent mom but a great deal about himself. He journeys literally from his home town of Swindon to London and metaphorically from a sheltered boyhood to the possibility of self-sufficiency as an adult.

Christopher dreams of becoming an astronaut, a job that combines things he loves: solitude, order, mathematics, flight and the beauty of the cosmos. At rest, he seems blissfully content with his life of the mind. But he seldom is at rest, once he realizes there may be nobody he can trust but a kindly teacher: His father has lied to him, his mother has left him, and neighbors terrify him. To succeed in the outside world, he must learn to let people into his own.

Unlike actors on the tour, Chester Shepherd doesn’t have to reach the back of a 2,000-seat theater. You can read every wince, as he cowers like a punch-drunk fighter anticipating a blow, or watch his fingers flail and clench as if trying to grasp an elusive reality. You hear each moan, anticipating that his anxiety will rise to a teakettle’s scream. (If you want to hear him zip through a math problem after the final bows, stick around. It’s a funny bit, but I think the play works better if you don’t.)

Stephens has written one other complicated character: Christopher’s dad (softly intense Rob Addison), who’s bent double under the burden of caring for his son and fumbles to avoid missteps that might fracture their relationship. Christopher’s beleaguered mom and beloved teacher (Becca Worthington and Megan Montgomery) stay in one vein throughout, and a six-person ensemble runs through cameos as the people Christopher encounters away from home.

The play surpasses the novel in at least one way. In the book, newly confident Christopher ends with the assertion that “I can do anything.” The script concludes ambiguously: His future rests partly in his own hands, partly in the treatment he’ll be given by a society that’s seldom kind to people so different from the norm. The meaning of the last exchange between him and his teacher is up to you.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

WHEN: Through Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday. ASL-interpreted Oct. 21, sensory-friendly matinee Oct. 27.

WHERE: Hadley Theater, 2132 Radcliffe Ave.

RUNNING TIME: 155 minutes, including one intermission.

TICKETS: $28-$40 (discounts for students, teachers and military).

DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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