We all have ways of coping with the dark spots on our hearts, whether by throwing ourselves into distractions like work and play — or perhaps by simply curling up in despair. For 15-year-old Christopher Boone, numbers serve as both palliative and mystic trick. Christopher has a condition on the autism spectrum, and his forays with figures also reveal how much we all can derive from beautiful, if seemingly inscrutable, minds.
Now running at the Dock Street Theatre in a heartfelt, superbly performed production by Charleston Stage, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a thoroughly absorbing work that not only succeeds as a soul-searching sort of whodunit, but also unpacks deeper mysteries of how we all think and feel. In its Charleston premiere, the Tony Award-winning play-within-a-play by Simon Stephens (which originated in London and is based on Mark Haddon's 2003 novel) is directed by Julian Wiles, the company's founder and producing artistic director.
A sleek, raked grid of a set is atwinkle with lights, adangle with letters and numbers, and fixed with an askew central screen. There, we experience teenaged Christopher's singular ways of dealing with familial strife, reeling as he does from life's considerable lumps by way of rapid-fire multiplication, mining the truths in right angles, and the whys and wherefores of black holes. He finds order in an increasingly chaotic universe by way of his highly advanced facility in mathematics and physics.
While being performed, Christopher's actions and reactions are often also narrated by his teacher Siobhan, as she reads the play that he has written. It recounts the dark undoing of a slain neighborhood dog named Wellington, and how that event collides with the circumstances of her student's own fractured family life. Through this narration, the audience fully avails of his interior monologue, providing greater context to responses that are often confounding and jarring, from violent reactions to being touched to an unflagging honesty that at times compromises his own self-preservation.
Taking a cue from Sherlock Holmes, animal-loving Christopher is keen to sleuth out exactly what happened to the poor pup, no matter how sternly his father Ed warns him against pursuing the matter. Through the incident, we learn that all is not well down the block in Christopher's home, with the recent abrupt absence of his mother. As the story unfolds, we join the young man on confused fact-finding excursions through his neighborhood in Swindon, in southwest England, and then as well to bearings-less, hairy rides through the London tube and teeming city streets.
The strength and success of this production falls on the shifting, lurched shoulders of 16-year-old Jacob Feight in the lead role of Christopher Boone. A member of Charleston Stage's TheatreWings Apprentice program, Feight takes on this challenging part with deep pathos and utter command, bringing to light the complex layers of a character who feels deeply, reacts intensely, yet at times seems impossible to reach. In doing so, he offers invaluable insight into, and empathy for individuals on the autism spectrum.
Through Feight's portrayal, Christopher's love of math, and his pet rat, shines through, along with his sheer panic and pain that are unwittingly triggered by unsuspecting, well-intentioned characters during the course of the work. Feight makes it movingly clear why Christopher clings to numbers as he does — and even gave me, a lifelong head-scratcher at all things mathematical, a new appreciation for their magic.
Feight's performance is shored up by the capable members of Charleston Stage's Resident Professional Acting Company, chief among them Brian Nabors, who is convincing and sympathetic as the tormented father led to some very bad judgment calls and Rylee Coppel, who as Christopher's estranged mother is similarly relatable given some equally questionable decisions. As Christopher's teacher Siobhan, Mary Kate Foley offers affecting salve and a calming note of hope that all the fractured elements of Christopher's world can find cohesion in self-expression. The rest of the cast likewise lends, with most switching one role to deftly remerge in another.
But for a bit of mire in the second act, when we spend more time than seems necessary entangled in the London tube that somewhat drags the dramatic arc, I was engaged in the production and its protagonist every geometrically calibrated stop of the way. After all, whether we manage our wounds through tears or Isosceles triangles, we're all after a sense of order in the universe. This fine, probing production does much to provide us with just that.