Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Review: THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF A DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME on tour at the Oriental Theatre
By Erin Shea Brady
There’s no denying the skill that goes into a production like THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF A DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME. As Christopher, Adam Langdon is physically engaged in every muscle, every moment and rarely leaves the stage, if ever. Many of the transitions require the whole ensemble. The designers have every light in the house working overtime — and it pays off. This crew harnesses the power of theater to communicate a different way of being, a different experience of the world around us.
Christopher has autism, though it isn’t specified in the script. Visually, the play operates within a grid, representing Christopher’s need for what is orderly, predictable and straightforward. The play explores what happens when, inevitably, people begin to move outside of Christopher’s grid. His logic becomes unreliable. The adults around him, whom we often empathize with, begin to need affection and validation that he can’t give. His need for honesty and transparency is disrespected and defiled by those he trusts.
The book itself is beautiful. I remember reading Mark Haddon’s novel in high school and relating to it strongly, even though it wasn’t about me or my experience. At its core, it’s a coming of age story. It’s about that moment when we can no longer tailor our surroundings to what makes us comfortable. I was glad to see that readings from the original text make an appearance in the play.
The entertainment factor is there. This play, in many ways, is captivating. But at times, there’s a war between entertainment and social responsibility. An exception is the end of the first act, which marries the two in a moment that gives us more of an insight into who Christopher is and what it looks like when he lets the outside world in.
Though he gets a lot right in terms of behavior, this Christopher lacks enough nuance to give us a fully-drawn character, rather than a general experience of an autistic person. Of course, the task isn’t easy, as autism often confuses human interaction.
With representation of autistic characters so sparse, there is a great responsibility to express them not only with accuracy, but in a way that generates empathy. Because it’s so tech-heavy, it is likely that this play would be overstimulating for someone with autism, which leads me to believe that this experience is primarily intended for those not on the spectrum. If this is the case, I would think that the goal of the play would be to show some common ground, to appreciate the differences between our experiences.
After her film, Snow Cake, in which she played a high-functioning autistic woman, Sigourney Weaver said that though most people think of autism as a deficit, we should begin to see it as a gift, a way to “learn how to play, [to] re-experience learning how to enjoy really simple things.” With notable exceptions at the end of each act, this production tends to present autism as a deficit more than an asset.
There is beauty in how Christopher finds comfort in the red of his socks. There is strength in his intensity. We can learn from him. I saw this appreciation in the production, but wanted more of it.
This is an important play to see, bearing in mind that this is one interpretation of one single experience of autism. I hope that this play will inspire audiences to see beyond what they see, and to find the beauty and strength in a different perspective.