BWW Review: CURIOUS INCIDENT at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

BWW Review: CURIOUS INCIDENT at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Under Jonathan Berry's direction, Simon Stephens's THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME has found its emotional center at Steppenwolf. Based upon the novel by Mark Haddon, CURIOUS INCIDENT marks the first Steppenwolf for Young Adults production of this season, and this staging brings the show's theme of human connection to the forefront. I saw this play both on Broadway and on tour when it passed through Chicago in 2016, and the more poignant parts of the narrative felt swallowed up by the cavernous venues. In Steppenwolf's comparably smaller Downstairs Theatre, CURIOUS INCIDENT has considerably more emotional heft while also offering up a unique visual and aural landscape.

As with previous stagings, Steppenwolf's production makes ample use of design effects to aid in the story of British teenager Christopher Boone, who is on the spectrum and has a remarkable capacity for mathematics. Brandon Wardell's scenic design is minimalistic, which emphasizes the play's meta-theatrical nature. The set design is intentionally sparse as the play traverses a large range of locations. Wardell's lighting design, Pornchanok Kanchanabanca's sound design and original music, and Joseph Burke's projections altogether make the world of CURIOUS INCIDENT come alive. The projections supply a wide range of visual representations and are perhaps most interesting and most smartly done when they are used to represent the inner workings of Christopher's innately logical, perfunctory brain. CURIOUS INCIDENT also has one of the most effective uses of sound design I've encountered recently in the theater; Kanchanabanca's aural landscape becomes a critical component of telling the narrative in astounding and delightful ways.

The beating heart of CURIOUS INCIDENT lies in Christopher's way of connecting with the world around him and his father's desire to connect with a son he doesn't always understand. Thus, strong acting performances are critical to make the piece work. Steppenwolf delivers here as well. In his Steppenwolf debut as Christopher, Terry Bell has great timing and vocal cadence. He is completely earnest in his line deliveries. Christopher is also a physically demanding role, but Bell never allows us to see him sweat unless it's true to the character. Even though his character may process both his emotions and the world differently from those around us, Bell garners immense sympathy and admiration from the audience. In Cedric Mays's portrayal of Christopher's father Ed, we are able to see both Ed's longing to become closer with his son and also the overwhelming feeling that he may never quite understand him.

Caroline Neff, stellar as always, has an open-hearted turn in the role of Christopher's teacher, Siobhan. Siobhan also becomes a surrogate for the audience, as she opens the narration for the play. Neff's gentle and warm delivery of the role invites us into the story and keeps the momentum going throughout the show. Rebecca Spence seems to float across the stage as Christopher's mother, Judy. Primarily seen in flashbacks, Spence walks an intriguing line between calm and flustered that fits the character well. Scott Allen Luke, Meg Thalken, Christopher M. Walsh, and Eunice Woods round out the ensemble in various roles that flesh out Christopher's world.

In Steppenwolf's CURIOUS INCIDENT, the emotional beating heart of the play comes beautifully alive.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME has weekend public performances at Steppenwolf Theatre Company through October 27. The October 27 performance at 3 pm will be a Relaxed/Sensory-Friendly performance. Tickets are $20-$30. Visit Steppenwolf.org.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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