‘Curious Incident’ explores life from another perspective

I have to admit, I’ve never really given much thought to what it would be like to have autism. Through my work with Chicago Special Parent, I think about parents of special needs kids a lot, but I don’t really consider the nitty-gritty details of how I would feel if I experienced the world differently than my peers.

If You Go

That was my main takeaway from Broadway in Chicago’s excellent, innovative staging of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time,” inspired by the 2003 novel of the same name (and 2015 Tony winner for Best Play). The play follows Christopher, a 15-year-old boy who seems to have high-functioning autism (although it isn’t explicitly said), as he investigates a canine “murder” in his English neighborhood.

But the mystery is really just a way to get the audience into Christopher’s world, a kaleidoscopic, overstimulating place where sight, sound and touch all intertwine in ways neurotypical people don’t experience. The play’s sparse staging and unique choreography, supplemented by intrusive visual and audio cues, give audiences even a glimpse into what Christopher, and people like him, experience every day.

Of course, we wouldn’t care about Christopher’s struggles if we didn’t care about him, and Adam Langdon’s touching portrayal makes that happen. He perfectly embodies Christopher’s physicality, a twitchy bearing, supplemented by an overly loud voice, specific diction and off-putting sense of humor. They all work together to make audiences fall in love with this boy and his various challenges, not to mention to cheer him on as he embarks on some adventures. He even charmed me with his explanation of a math problem (stick around post-curtain call), which is a feat for a non-math enthusiast like myself.

The cast outside of Langdon is equally strong, with Gene Gillette sympathetically portraying Christopher’s father’s heartbreak after a lifetime of love and care get erased by one well-meaning mistake. Similarly, Maria Elena Ramirez as Christopher’s teacher Siobhan, projects a warm presence that we all would want in a special education expert. Charlotte Maier as Mrs. Gascoyne got some of the biggest laughs of the evening, while the biggest “aw”s went to a surprise guest I wanted to take home with me.

Despite the cutesy-sounding name, this play is not for young children, a fact you’ll quickly realize when the f-word is deployed in the first moments of the play. But for older tweens and teens, especially ones who know someone with an autism spectrum disorder, the play might be an ideal gateway into thinking about how some of their peers experience the world.

That, ultimately, is the gift of this play. I don’t know what kind of history Mark Haddon, the man who wrote the book, has with the autism spectrum, but he (and playwright Simon Stephens) gave me a tiny glimpse of what it might be like to be Christopher. I hope it will translate into a more empathetic perspective for audience members on those who are different. And during this holiday season especially, I think we can all agree that’s something we dearly need.

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