“Curious Incident” opens Nov. 17 at the Morgan Hill Playhouse
By Calvin Nuttall
Transporting audiences inside the mind of an autistic teenager is no easy feat, but South Valley Civic Theatre is determined to unravel this perspective intricately and responsibly in their upcoming production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” by Simon Stephens.
When “Christopher Boone” finds his neighbor’s dog has been murdered, he takes it upon himself to track down the culprit. Audiences will watch the mystery unfold through his eyes as he investigates and discovers far more than just the identity of the killer.
Directed by Scott Lynch and starring Kyle Strenfel as Christopher, the show opens Nov. 17 at the Morgan Hill Community Playhouse. Due to some strong language and adult themes, SVCT recommends parental guidance for pre-teens.
Not only is Christopher the central character, but the play is written as if he himself were the playwright. As such, his neurodivergent perspective of the world is central to the entire show, from its dialogue and narration to its scene structure and staging.
“It’s so important for people to learn to respond with understanding and empathy,” Lynch said. “I think people have stereotypic views of autism. Our objective is to have the audience walk away with an emotional response that makes them more empathetic and sympathetic and knowledgeable of this condition and how it impacts families.”
The cast and crew have worked to ensure their portrayal of Christopher and his family are accurate and respectful. This has included consulting with real life parents of autistic children.
“It’s been a very humbling experience,” said Strenfel, 16. “It’s definitely something I’ve never done before. The important thing is finding the right resources to see what autism looks like, and then try to put myself in (Christopher’s) shoes and bring him to life. It’s a lot of trying to understand people who are on the spectrum. It has been an amazing lesson for myself about how humanity works.”
Christopher has great difficulty processing information, and in chaotic situations these difficulties are intensified. At one point in the play, he finds himself at a train station in London, a noisy and chaotic place where he becomes completely overstimulated.
“A person who is not on the spectrum would be able to block out certain aspects of that environment so they can stay focused on what they need to do,” Strenfel said. “But for someone like Christopher, he has to take in all of that information at once. That is really difficult to communicate to the audience, because you don’t have that chaos in your head.”
In order to convey what Christopher feels in these scenes, SVCT employs multiple technological tools including flashing lights, sound, and projector effects to recreate the thoughts and information swirling in his head.
In these moments of stress, Christopher turns to mathematics to stabilize himself. Despite his impairment in other areas, he is a mathematical savant, and being allowed into the A-level math course at his school is a constant goal for him throughout the show.
“He knows that this is something he wants to do,” Strenfel said. “It is one of the constants in his life and one of the things he can focus on when everything else is chaotic, and helps him keep himself together in a lot of stressful moments.”
Despite his talent, his school does not want to allow Christopher into this course due to his young age, even though he is well beyond the learning level required. Thankfully, he has a strong advocate in “Siobhan,” his teacher and mentor, played by Maddy Khachadoorian.
“Siobhan is the one character in the show that, no matter what is occurring with Christopher, is always there and wanting to guide and support him,” Khachadoorian said. “She has this warmth about her that makes Christopher comfortable enough to confide and be responsive with her when many of the characters don’t have the patience for it.”
As he moves through the world in search of his answers, Christopher’s journey highlights many of the real-world ways in which our society fails people like him.
“For me, this play brings out a lot of questions about accessibility,” Khachadoorian said. “We can see how uncomfortable and overstimulated Christopher is throughout a lot of it, and then we can see moments where he is feeling a moment of reprieve. When we see that, we see him when he is at his happiest. I find that to be very special.”
Christopher’s parents, Judy and Ed Boone, are also central to the story as his caregivers, and are themselves complex and flawed. While he investigates the murder of the dog, Christopher discovers shocking revelations about their actions and relationship.
“As a society, we tend to be very judgemental about people and situations when we’re on the outside of them,” said Sindu Singh, who plays Judy Boone. “The perspective that Judy brings is to allow you to understand how difficult it is for the caregivers, the people who surround the lives of differently-abled people. It is very easy to sit in judgment of them, but when you actually see their day-to-day, and how much they actually want to make it work, I think there is a level of empathy and compassion to be had.”
Christopher’s perspective lends a unique neutrality to the moral issues of his parents’ behavior, Singh said. He is direct and non-judgemental, and this forces the audience to consider things differently and reevaluate their assumptions about Ed and Judy.
“It is a very contentious relationship, but they are both incredibly loving in their different ways,” Singh said. “They are very different people, and they deal with the situation in their lives very differently. They are broken, like all of us are in some way or another, but there is no question that they are both committed to their child.”
First and foremost, “The Curious Incident” is a human story, Singh said. All the characters’ human flaws are completely visible to the audience, and that is what makes the story well-portrayed in a way that will have audiences emotionally engaged.
“You’re going to laugh, you’re going to cry, you’re going to feel, you’re going to actually be curious – after all, who did kill the dog?” she said. “You’re going to be blown away by how it is all presented. There is a massive team of incredibly talented people who have all come together to put this show on. It is just mesmerizing.”
Through his journeys, Christopher learns and grows, discovering new ways to cope with his condition and inspiring the people around him to learn more about how to accommodate his needs. By the end of the show, he has moments of confidence and accomplishment that will make audiences want to celebrate with him, Lynch said.
“You empathize with his parents’ pride in their son,” he said. “Even if your kids aren’t neurodiverse, you celebrate their moments, and what this play does is illustrate that there is a spectrum of moments and a spectrum of achievements. Everybody has things that they seek after, and Christopher is no different. We have to learn to celebrate those moments for everybody.”
Calvin Nuttall is a Morgan Hill-based freelance reporter and columnist.