When theater or production companies make art that features a character with apparent but undefined disabilities, what are the companies’ responsibilities to the disability community? The Walnut Street Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens’s adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel, marks important first steps in the company toward inclusion. But the uneven yet sincere production ultimately falls short of making space for those with disabilities.
Curious Incident blazed onto the scene in 2012 and proceeded to win a series of national and international awards, including seven Olivier Awards and five Tonys. The original West End staging and subsequent Broadway production were electrifying—but it is the play’s protagonist, a neurodivergent fifteen-year-old, who truly stands out.
The heart of the play
Christopher Boone’s life in Wiltshire, England, gets thrown into chaos when a neighbor’s dog is found dead, pierced through with a garden fork. Christopher (Austin Nedrow) launches an investigation to find the dog’s murderer, writing about his findings along the way. But his “detection” uncovers secrets that threaten the delicate routine set by his father and other caregivers, and it sends him on an even grander adventure than he anticipated.
Christopher is the heart of the play, and the success of any production of Curious Incident hinges on the actor playing him. High-school senior Austin Nedrow valiantly puts his all into Christopher, but the role gets the better of him. Nedrow struggles to balance Christopher’s complex characterization, moving mechanically from different actions and emotions a more experienced actor might take in stride. He shines when he dials into lengthier bits of text, where he has time to find the kind of simplicity and matter-of-factness that makes Christopher endearing and frustrating in the same turn.
A dynamic production
This puts a damaging emotional distance between Nedrow and the rest of his castmates, whose extra work helps establish chemistry and rapport. Real-life couple Ian Merrill Peakes and Karen Peakes play Mr. and Mrs. Boone, respectively, with an aching clarity that provides insight into the often conflicting needs of those parenting children with disabilities. Alicia Roper is powerful and warm as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher, confidante, and co-narrator. The ensemble (Susan Riley Stevens, Justin Lujan, Greg Wood, Dan Hodge, Sarah Gliko, and Jane Ridley) are swift and precise as they switch from one character to the next, transport props, and create the changing locales with their bodies through dynamic choreography.
Bill Van Horn, a regular on the Walnut stage, steps out of the spotlight and into the role of director for the production. Curious Incident is a challenging text that offers little in the way of notes on staging from the playwright, but Van Horn orchestrates the moving parts well. Designers Roman Tatarowicz (sets), Ryan O’Gara (lights), Christopher Colucci (sound), and Christopher Ash (projections) bring Christopher’s interior life into an enthralling visual and aural landscape, complete with a background grid of floor-to-ceiling pipes, a phosphorescent platform where most of the action takes place, and large scrims for projected images.
A sensory-friendly performance
The Walnut’s production comes with a first for the mainstage: it will be offering one subsidized, sensory-friendly performance that is, according to the theater, “specifically aimed at special-needs preteens, teenagers, and adults who might not otherwise be able to attend a traditional performance.” But when other theaters across the country staging Curious Incident have taken inclusivity further (Indiana Repertory Theatre’s 2017 production cast Mickey Rowe as Christopher, making him the first actor with autism to play the part), and many Philly theaters and cultural institutions have already made sensory-friendly programming part of their mainstream offerings for years, is one weekday matinee enough without the accompaniment of other efforts?
The Walnut’s programming of Curious Incident, its production, and its decision to incorporate a sensory-friendly performance are all steps in the right direction, but the theater remains miles behind the rest.
What, When, Where
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. By Simon Stephens, directed by Bill Van Horn. Through April 28, 2019, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
The Walnut Street Theatre is an ADA-compliant venue. If you need wheelchair seating, please call (215) 574-3550 ext. 6, rather than ordering tickets online.
There will be a “subsidized sensory-friendly” performance of Curious Incident on Wednesday, April 10, 2019, at 11am. There will be an open-captioned performance on Sunday, April 7, 2019, at 7pm.