Friday, September 29, 2017

IRT's "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" moves us to a place where few of us have been

There's a charming clumsiness about the title of Indiana Repertory Theatre's season-opening show. Quite subtly, it ushers
Christopher confronts the London Underground in his search for his mother.
audiences into a different way of looking at the world, a clumsiness that speaks to both the maladjustment and insights of autism.

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" sounds like genre fiction, and indeed there is an air of murder mystery about how events unfold at first from the discovery in an English middle-class garden of a dead dog with a pitchfork in its side. By the end of the first act of Simon Stephens' play, however, the "whodunit" aspect has been settled. We are left with a deeper focus on the pathos of autism and its effects on those who have the condition as well as on their loved ones.

Mickey Rowe is the first American actor with autism to play the role of Christopher in this deeply affecting drama, charged with surrealism in its sights and sounds so as to bring us more truly into the hero's private world. Apart from his strict tastes in matters of food and color, Christopher is a brilliant 15-year-old, fearful of strangers and subject to meltdowns when stressed or overloaded with sense impressions.

To follow up on his discovery of the handsome black Labrador's body, Christopher assigns himself the task of finding the killer, recoiling from the hysteria of Mrs Shears, the pet's owner, while pressing forward. That is enough to start him on a journey outside his comfort zone. To have a goal unconnected with his specialized knowledge of mathematics and outer space conflicts with the extreme presentism of his condition. If asked "What are you doing?" an autistic person is likely to answer, "Talking to you."
Christopher (Mickey Rowe) and his mother (Constance Macy).

Supported by every aspect of the production, Rowe takes us deep inside an outlook as hemmed in by private rules and boundaries as any we might imagine. The social cues that most of us learn to process in the normal course of development are not something Christopher can initiate or respond to. Those private rules are always being violated, because they are not how the world runs.

The style of the production will seem avant-garde to some patrons. I cannot otherwise account for several walkouts I noticed at Thursday evening's performance. I've never seen the like at an IRT production. The show's method of telling Christopher's story is wholly consonant with who he is, however, and aids our understanding at every point. The line between theater's conventional presentation of an illusion and the reality it draws upon is crossed and recrossed.

Thus I can't help thinking that the production's way of communicating Christopher's habitual disorientation was uncomfortably disorienting to some. That's a crucial measure of the show's success under Risa Brainin's direction and the design team of Russell Metheny (scenes), Devon Painter (costumes), Michael Klaers (lighting), Todd Mack Reischman (sound), and Katherine Freer (projections). Michelle DiBucci's original music, a boat with a Glass bottom, completed the atmosphere.

Rowe's fascinating essay in the program book reminds us that "autistics use scripts every day," and thus the everyday life that most of us carry out "off book" is a continual challenge to them. In "Curious Incident," then, we are necessarily in a world that blurs accident and organization, inadvertence and intention.

An outstretched hand, fingers apart, has to be his father's way of making contact with Christopher.
The shock of recognition this play forces upon us is that normality moves all of us close to the autistic world now and then: We rehearse what we are going to say, we seesaw between what we want and what others expect of us, and we become rattled in strange environments that don't easily permit us to get our bearings. The spectacular London Underground scene, with its rush and blur of action, its bristling indifference and pervasive pollution of sight and sound, was usefully disturbing: "I've been there," I thought, yet without anything like Christopher's desperate, methodical search for his mother, who has moved under duress from the family home in middle-size Swindon to London, about 80 miles east.

Christopher's detailed writing about his life is redirected toward dramatic presentation with the encouragement of Siobhan, his nurturing, insightful teacher, given steadiness and compassion in Elizabeth Ledo's performance. With their offstage voices,
multiple roles for six of them and their deployment shifting scenery and props, the rest of the cast keeps reminding us that to the autistic, other people are mainly emblematic of threats and challenges in the environment. They are figures merely, or metaphors, and thus (in Christopher's blunt view) lies. How theatrical!

Besides Siobhan, the two constants in Christopher's world are represented by the two actors who inhabit one character each: his parents, Ed and Judy. The anxiety and constant pressure of bringing up a severely autistic son has told upon them in drastic ways. Robert Neal and Constance Macy embodied the physical and psychic ache of conveying intimacy to a son who helplessly makes intimacy next to impossible, thus putting his parents' bond in deep peril.

Rowe's vocal tone and physical grace in representing Christopher's vexed self-assurance and awkwardness seemed magical. And when the spine-tingling happy ending, which I of course can't reveal, is capped by the boy's unanswered question to Siobhan, we feel an odd confidence that we know the answer. But that's only because we have been led so masterfully by this production toward experiencing a different order of reality, one that like our own is undergirded by love.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]