LA PLATA, Md. — Theatre, as in the case with all forms of art, is meant to do one of two things – entertain or educate its audience. While the first has its place for comforting the often burned-out American theatregoer with welcome distractions from their daily stresses, it is the latter that has always been my personal favorite.
The Port Tobacco Players (PTP)’s newest production of the drama The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time brings this important facet of theatre to life these next few weekends in La Plata.
Originally produced in 2013 on London’s West End with a later Broadway transfer, Curious Incident went on to win nine Olivier Awards and five Tony Awards.
The play tells the story of a 15-year-old autistic boy named Christopher, who is suspected of killing his neighbor’s dog. Certain that he did not take the dog’s life, he begins an investigation that reveals far more about his personal life than he originally anticipated.
This play is chocked full of an abundance of twists and turns that keeps the audience engaged the entire time.
At the helm of this production, Craig Hower serves as both a director and set designer with the best intentions and purity in choosing to direct a show of this nature. This is best displayed in his decision to employ the assistance of a Spectrum Coach to portray Christopher in a respectful, honest light instead of turning him into a grossly overdone caricature of Autism.
For this reason, Hower has my utmost respect.
He harnesses all of the technical elements at his disposal at PTP’s theater to make the audience organically understand how Christopher experiences the world. The result is a show full of breathtaking visual moments that light up the senses in the best way possible.
For the first time on a Southern Maryland stage, Hower has chosen to employ an automated track system for scene changes instead of using stage hands dressed in all black. This allows for a very fluid stream-of-consciousness feel to the staging that further enhances the story’s captivating nature and allows the story to clip along at a brisk pace.
However, the most insane highlight of the set is the handcrafted massive tree, as designed by John Merritt, that sits at the right side of the stage. Merritt even replaces the tree’s real branches regularly to ensure that the tree always feels authentic.
The result of these two elements makes for an almost dreamy feel to the set that further enhances the perspective of the young protagonist.
Sound design by Kelsey Clarke and Nate Daetwyler creates a truly immersive, visceral soundscape that creates a three-dimensional quality for the story. There are a few times throughout the play where the audience is made to feel what Christopher feels during stressful situations.
While these are particularly jarring to experience, they accurately depict what a neurodiverse person experiences when overstimulated by a barrage of sounds and certain experiences.
Three actors that I found to be of particular note in this production are Kaitelyn Bauer Dieguez as Siobhan, John Swann as Ed, and William Zabriskie as Christopher. Dieguez imbues Siobahn with a heartfelt, Miss Honey-adjacent (see: Roald Dahl’s Matilda) spirit that evokes perpetual feelings of childhood solace each time that she graces the stage. Every reaction to Christopher is one of authentic, tender warmth.
Swann shows his acting versatility as a downtrodden father, just trying to do his best in less-than-ideal circumstances. I previously saw him in PTP’s Macbeth earlier this year, where he played the comedic relief, so a role of this gravity was impressive to behold. His performance feels whole-heartedly earnest at all times, and the way he connects to Christopher is heartbreaking in its realism.
Zabriskie’s acting work in this production is impressive solely given the actor’s age (he’s a sophomore in high school!). However, he takes it a measure further with his dedication to fashioning Christopher into a realistic person instead of a stereotype. His physicality with how Christopher interacts with people and his intermittent fidgeting helps to bring about this legitimate portrayal of an autistic teenager.
While this show is a timely and relevant piece, this is not a production for everyone. After viewing this show, I cannot confidently recommend this to someone who is autistic because of how visceral the sound design is in its alarming clarity.
That being said, this is a play meant to educate neurotypical brains on how neurodiverse brains experience the world. True empathy is only achieved through experiencing the plight of people who live differently than us, and this is a production that aims to do just that.
The approximate run time is two hours and 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.
Content Advisory: This show contains mature language, minor innuendo, and brief stage violence.
There are also intense audio sequences that may be difficult for those with neurodiverse brains or those who are easily overstimulated.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will be playing at the Port Tobacco Players theater located at 508 Charles Street La Plata, MD 20646, from September 30th through October 9th.
For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit their website here (https://www.ptplayers.com/the-curious-incident-of-the-dog-in-the-night-time.html).
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