"I can do anything. Can't I?" asks Christopher, the young mathematician and sleuth at the center of Simon Stephens' Tony Award-winning "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," currently running at Virginia Repertory Theatre.
It's a question that hangs over the play throughout: How much can Christopher, exceptionally intelligent and probably autistic — the play never directly states this — really achieve?
Mark Haddon's 2003 novel, on which the play is based, left Christopher's condition obscure for good reason: Christopher wouldn't think much about it, and this story takes place in his mind. Taking its title from a Sherlock Holmes story, the novel is essentially an English murder mystery experienced through Christopher's eyes. Someone has murdered Wellington, the neighbor's dog, with a garden fork. Determined to get to the bottom of the crime, Christopher embarks on an investigation, uncovering devastating secrets about his own family in the process.
Like Christopher, Haddon's novel seeks to push boundaries: How much can a novel achieve? Can it effectively transport its audience into the mind of a person on the autism spectrum? Can a play do the same, Stephens' script seems to ask? The unusual first-person point-of-view is an integral part of the story and how it unfolds — bringing that perspective to the stage presents a sizable challenge to any company.
Director and choreographer Nathaniel Shaw has made a valiant effort with this production. Striving for authenticity, he and the company worked with the Autism Society of Central Virginia and invited dialect coach Erica Hughes to work with actors on their British accents. But ultimately, I thought this production fell short.
Michael Manocchio is mostly believable as Christopher, but he doesn't feel 15 years old, and this can sometimes undercut a scene or a moment. Emelie Faith Thompson is good as Siobhan, his aide and mentor, but her performance served the story without standing out. As Christopher's parents, Ed and Judy, respectively, Joe Pabst and Laine Satterfield almost hit the mark, but sometimes their performances felt too restrained, and I could feel them acting. These are all difficult roles, however, and these actors certainly have the chops. I'd be curious to see how they may flesh out these performances later in the show's run.
The ensemble, though, is absolutely on-point in this production. These bit players are the best part of the show, portraying multiple characters throughout the play while also sometimes acting as parts of the set, providing sound, illustration and movement to Christopher's thoughts as he and Siobhan narrate them. Standouts from the ensemble include Irene Ziegler, who plays Christopher's elderly neighbor Mrs. Alexander, and Adam Valentine and Raven Lorraine Wilkes, who each portray a plethora of characters and set elements.
Tennessee Dixon's scenic design is really cool and effective. I loved the look of the layered scrims, lined in different colored lights, and the large back wall that opens like a door onto Christopher's memories. Sometimes, though, this set and the way it functioned seemed to pull us out of Christopher's point-of-view. For example, I love the metaphor the set creates when Judy appears in Christopher's memories, having to push and pull the big clunky set pieces out of the way in order to reach her son. However, in those moments it can feel as if we have left Christopher's perspective to glance instead at Judy's struggle to connect with him.
I also thought the two screens positioned near the top of the stage were unnecessary. They did add to the feeling of sensory overload, but I thought B.J. Wilkinson's lighting design and Daniel Brodie's projection design are sufficient to achieve that feeling, and the screens interrupted the clean lines of the set.
Julian Evans' original compositions are a welcome addition to this production, and the sound design contributed to the overall appeal, but there were moments where the use of increased volume to re-create a feeling of sensory overload felt obvious or overused.
It's a remarkable play, telling a heartbreaking yet optimistic story about a young man who overcomes obstacle after obstacle to achieve more than he thought he could. Virginia Repertory Theatre's production presents this story in creative and original ways, and although I thought it could have been stronger, I am so pleased that they've brought this story to share with Richmond audiences. S
Virginia Repertory's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" runs until Oct. 14 at the November Theatre. Tickets cost $30 - $52. va-rep.org.