Life on the spectrum is difficult to navigate when the interruption of every day stimuli can create a break in the road. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time doesn’t focus on the limitations of living with autism rather it directs attention to the infinite possibilities of traversing the orbit of autism.
The reality of autistic teenager Christopher is shaken with the discovery of the neighbor’s dead dog, setting off a chain of events that reveals more than just the cause of death. It changes the course of Christopher’s life.
Directed by Bradley Akers, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opens April 20 at Players by the Sea in Jacksonville Beach (www.playersbythesea.org). Akers is thrilled at the opportunity to bring the show to the PBTS Studio Stage for a fully immersive experience. “It’s so intimate and for a play that really gets into this young man’s mind, I think the studio stage allows us to bring the audience on an enhanced journey,” he says. “It’s a theatrical phenomenon the way that it’s produced because it’s so physical and it’s got so many high technology points that it’s really unlike anything you’ll ever see.”
Akers was first introduced to the novel by Mark Haddon as part of a high school summer reading project. Since then, there has been many adaptations of the successful play, which earned a Tony Award in 2015 for Best Play. “I read the novel and instantly fell in love with it because I was so thankful and interested to be reading something that was about a young man on the spectrum, but it never said that, so it wasn’t necessarily about what he’s challenged with. It’s about how his brain works,” says Akers. “It’s was just interesting to finally read something about a young man’s mind and the lengths that he and his mind go to investigate and undercover truths.”
Christopher, a role inhabited by Drew Brown, embarks on a quest to uncover the circumstances surrounding the death of his neighbor’s dog. Against his father’s orders and his own self-imposed boundaries, he confronts a series of discoveries that inevitably lead to an emotional self-discovery.
“The motivation for him to find out who killed the dog is in the way he experiences the world and the way that he has to uncover things. Christopher is really into Sherlock Holmes and the investigational nature of things but he’s also into mathematics and science so the way that his brain works is already very linear and logical. He revels in achieving these very specific goals, so he sets up with the goal that he’s going to find out who killed Wellington, the dog,” says Akers.
“To investigate like Sherlock Holmes is really fascinating to Christopher and it allows him to use his gift in what he thinks is a very meaningful and helpful way even though everyone is against his doing this. He’s going to do it anyway not just to prove that he can, but that is a big question for him. Can I do anything I put my mind to? On the journey to find out what happens to the dog, he uncovers some much bigger things. It’s something that changes the entire course of his life.”
To fulfill his vision, Akers knew he needed to cast a strong and capable actor who could manage the physical and emotional demands of the role. He found that in Drew Brown, a veteran of local productions and playwright who developed and staged his original script Sentences as part of the first season of the New Voices program at PBTS.
“Drew, as an actor, is one of the invested, focused and truly transforming performers that I’ve ever come across. He embodies Christopher with every last part of him. It’s a highly challenging role for him because of Christopher being on the spectrum and the way that he experiences emotion is a challenge in and of itself. Additionally, this is a really physical show, so I’ve asked Drew to do some really incredible things with his body that are tough to do. From the moment the play starts, he is on stage every second of the show until the very end. It’s emotionally and physically exhausting.”
As in Haddon’s original novel, the stage adaptation doesn’t confront the issue of autism head on or address the realities of living on the spectrum in a way that is clinical or judgmental. The script is boosted by projection mapping to visually transform the studio space and deliver a perspective of life on the spectrum that is both honest and authentic.
“It took a lot of research and a lot of discussion about what elements we could add that is not going to hit the audience over the head with it because I’m not interested in doing that. For Drew, he has to deliver a lot of physicality and a lot of Christopher’s emotional and mental state when there is so much information coming at him at once and he has to compartmentalize that,” Akers says. “For Christopher and others on the spectrum, it’s very difficult to weed through all the information. He has to deal with one thing and then move on to the next thing. So, we’re finding a lot of that structure within the script. Every little thing that happens in the play is how he recalls it or wants it to be. So, if Christopher recalls someone just wearing a vest and a hat, if that’s all he sees, that’s all they’re going to have. His mind is really manipulating how the story unfolds.
“At the end, Christopher repeats a sentence a couple of times. He’s asking his mentor ‘does this mean I can do anything?’ I’m hoping that people will understand that this is a story about the resilience of the mind, that truly no matter what stands in your way, the mind is absolutely extraordinary and if you follow, pursue and push, you really are capable of anything.”