The central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is 15-year-old mathematical genius Christopher John Francis Boone, who lives in Swindon, England, with his dad.
Mark Haddon’s novel, and the 2013 stage adaptation by Simon Stephens, tell Christopher’s non-linear story in slightly different ways, yet both connected with audiences both viscerally and emotionally.
The stage version won seven Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tonys), the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Play, the Drama League Award for Outstanding Production and the Tony Award for Best Play.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time makes its bay area debut this weekend, in a co-production between three Tampa theater companies.
“Everybody always focuses on the fact that Christopher is on the autism spectrum,” says Tampa Repertory Theatre artistic director Emilia Sargent, who’s directing the play. “It’s implied in the book, even though it’s not stated. It’s a very important aspect of it.”
Yet Christopher’s Sherlock Holmes-ian search for the person who killed his neighbor’s dog with a “garden fork” is the launching pad for a far greater adventure of personal discovery.
“I think the overarching theme is: We all have the power within us to overcome difficult obstacles, not only on a daily basis,” Sargent says. “We can find bravery within us, and we can do things beyond what we ever expected we could do.”
Tampa Rep and ThinkTank Theatre are producing Curious Incident in repertory with the Young Adult play The Giver, which opened last week. Since neither group has a fixed, permanent home, the two productions are taking place at Stageworks, in the Channelside District.
Both plays have large casts; five actors, in fact, are in both of them.
J.J. Humphrey, 17, plays Christopher Boone. The Polk County 12th grader was recommended to Sargent by Mickey Rowe, the autistic actor who originated the role on Broadway.
Humphrey identifies as an autistic person. He is also a seasoned actor who considered Christopher in Curious Incident a “bucket list” role.
Casting the character for Tampa Rep/ThinkTank’s production had to be just right, according to Sargent.
“There are so few roles that are written specifically for neurodivergent characters,” she says. “I think if we’re really starting to stretch and represent, and to include and tell other stories, this is yet another area where we can do that. So having a neurodivergent actor, who is so active as an advocate for people with unique abilities, is critical.”
Humphrey was not the only neurodivergent actor who auditioned for the role. “We deliberately reached out and worked hard to make sure our audition was welcoming, and well-publicized so people would know,” Sargent reports.
“When he walked in, he had done his homework. He was ready to go. He was clearly prepared, and he took direction very well. He’s very, very good.”
(So good, in fact, that once he was offered and accepted the part, he walked into the first rehearsal completely “off book” – he had all of Christopher’s lines memorized).
“His choices are through his own experience and research,” Sargent explains. “He has an interesting story – he talks about how he could not make eye contact when he was little, and that theater has really been what has helped him overcome some things.
“So he’s made the choice that Christopher doesn’t really make eye contact. And it’s really clear that that is a character choice.”
Today’s matinee will be presented as a “relaxed performance” – certain lightning effects and sound cues are eliminated, the theater door is left open, and some of the harsher language in Curious Incident is toned down. All for the benefit of audience members who might have certain sensitivities.
The full production opens tonight at 7:30, and will run – in rep with The Giver – through Dec. 19.
“If Christopher was neurotypical,” offers Sargent, “I think the critical part of the story would be that there are obstacles in daily life. Somebody could be painfully shy. Or have fear of crowds. Or just be generally afraid to try new things.
“I think what makes it miraculous is that frequently, others would not expect Christopher to be able to do these things – and Christopher himself wouldn’t expect to be able to do them.”
Tickets and information here.