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With all the vision-related metaphors greeting the year 2020, the choice of a post-holiday play that has its audience seeing the world through different eyes seems apt.
The Public Theater of San Antonio is presenting through Jan. 19 The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time, a two-act play narrated by a character widely assumed to be on the autism spectrum.
In the novel on which the play is based, author Mark Haddon never identified his 15-year-old main character Christopher Boone as having a specific condition, but the teenager is unable to feel empathy, is easily overwhelmed by sense stimuli, and possesses savant-like mathematical and mapping abilities.
“All we know is that he’s eccentric, and he really struggles with fitting in in the society that we’ve created around him,” said Mark Stringham, director of the Public Theater’s production.
The story hinges on a mystery: Who killed the neighbor’s dog? After lashing out at a policeman who scares him simply by touching him, Christopher comes under suspicion. In order to exonerate himself, the fan of the highly logical detective Sherlock Holmes undertakes his own investigation, but in so doing must confront a bewildering world.
The play’s title is taken from a line in a 1892 horse racing-themed Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle. A dog’s failure to bark is the curious incident, which leads to other clues and the famed fictional detective’s conclusion that the murderer in question “was someone whom the dog knew well.” Christopher eventually arrives at a similar discovery, along the way revealing other mysteries about his family.
The Public Theater is presenting the play in its Cellar Theater, a small, spare, 60-seat black-box space with little room for elaborate sets and props. This proves advantageous, said George Green, the theater’s artistic director and CEO, because it puts the focus squarely on the story.
Clever lighting design by Dan Heggem stands in for props and different locations as Christopher negotiates his way through his investigation, LED lights responding as his synapses might to overstimulation and mood shifts.
Green was confident his team could accomplish a high level of theatricality in the small space, he said, and has created “a beautiful production.” Though prior productions at large theaters have relied on video projections and expensive technology to produce Christopher’s interior thoughts and feelings, “when you strip everything away, the story is so amazing,” he said.
Green had seen the play at the Zach Theatre in Austin and invited its lead actor Preston Straus to play Christopher in the San Antonio production. “I just knew that he’d be the guy for it,” he said. Green has a daughter on the autism spectrum similar in age to Christopher, and said he appreciated Straus’ approach to the character.
Straus said he grew up in the North Dallas area babysitting a neighbor friend on the spectrum – coincidentally also named Christopher – which lent insight into how people with autism experience the world.
“I’ve always seen it as a show about someone who’s just different,” Straus said, “and I think that’s super relatable to everybody – that we’re all different in our own way and that what might be normal to somebody else is not normal to us.”
Straus also credits his theater colleagues for helping convey the character. “I get a lot of help from the script and the set and technical aspects of the show,” he said. Together, those elements do “a good job of highlighting the very extremes of life and how someone on the spectrum would go through that,” he said, with lighting and sound “going crazy” along with him when Christopher gets overwhelmed.
Stringham said the play is effective at putting audience members inside Christopher’s skin, and letting them see the world around us through new eyes. In relating to the character, “I realized what a crazy place we’ve created,” Stringham said.
“Difference should be less about where we’re from or who we are, and more about discovering what it means to be human and embracing people on each individual journey. The things that make us [react] differently to the struggles that we have are the things that make us great and special,” he said, concluding that Christopher’s story is like everyone else’s. “We have a boy who is looking for truth and trying to discover the reality of all circumstances.”
Curious Incident is “not about learning about autism, it’s about learning about the journey of autism, and how capable humanity actually is,” Green said, and called it an inspiring story. “I felt empowered by watching it,” he said. “Watching that show, I felt there’s nothing I couldn’t accomplish.”
The production is technically sold out through its run. However, Green encouraged anyone interested to sign up for the wait list either through this web link or by calling the box office at 210-733-7258. Green also encouraged people to show up early to the theater, as any unoccupied seats will be sold five minutes prior to show time.