By Simon Stephens
At Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650 or Steppenwolf.org; $20-$30
Runs through: Oct. 27
Christopher is always watched. As he goes about his afternoon routine, his father hovers. At school, talking about taking his A-level exams, his teacher listens with a supportive eye. When interrogating a neighbor about gossip at a local park, strangers are on the lookout for his well-being.
Because Christopher is not like most teenagers in his southern England community. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon's acclaimed novel, and performed as part of the Steppenwolf for Young Audiences programming, never identifies Christopher's condition, but it is clear he is neurologically atypical, a deeply intelligent young man who works hard to process the confusing and sense-driven world around him by breaking his experiences into mathematical patterns and maps.
Although he lives on a quiet street, Christopher's ( Terry Bell ) world is shaken one night when he discovers a neighborhood dog has been killed with a garden fork. He sets out to solve the mystery of who murdered Wellington, despite his father Ed's ( Cedric Mays ) warnings to keep his nose out of other people's business. His teacher Siobhan ( Caroline Neff ) encourages him to write his investigation down in a notebook, believing it could be staged as a play. Kindly neighbor Mrs. Alexander ( Meg Thalken ) provides vital information about Judy ( Rebecca Spence ), Christopher's recently deceased mother, that destroys Christopher's controlled world, and sends him on an adventure to London, so he can solve an entirely different sort of mystery.
Stephens' script follows the outline of Haddon's first-person novel, but he makes Christopher an equal member of his town by allowing other actors to narrate his story along with him. The ensemble of eight actors embody his experiences with neighbors and strangers, but they also guide him physically through the use of ATM machines or paying for a train ticket. Memories of his father and teacher advise Christopher on how to move through the world. Christopher may feel singular and alone, but it is very clear he is not.
Director Jonathan Berry's attention to detail matches Christopher's. When Bell moves across the spare stage to meet his next challenge, those around him create not only the background atmosphere of a comfortable park or a full tube car, they watch, curious about his investigation and protective of his progress. Dan Plehal's precise, poetic movement work allows actor to exaggerate their physicalities into dance-like sweeps and dips, showcasing how Christopher's senses can be overloaded during the simplest interactions. And Joseph Burke's projection design invites the audience to experience Christopher's overload, which often resolve from a fuzzy TV static into a clear image and resolute decision.
The joy of this production is that the audience experiences the world as Christopher experiences it. We, too, are watching. And by witnessing Christopher when he succeeds, or when he retreats into himself, our understanding of those we might excise from our daily life expands, and our own community grows, just as his does.