[Editor's note: Due to Oregon’s temporary public health restrictions on public gatherings, Portland Center Stage at The Armory is cancelling / rescheduling all performances through Wed April 8. We liked this play and think you should leave yourself a note to see it when performances resume.]
Author Mark Haddon doesn’t diagnose the main character of his breakthrough 2003 novel, A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, as being autistic. But the way he captures the voice of Christopher, a young man with rigid routines and unflagging honesty whose entire conception of the world comes apart, puts readers close—closer than anyone before—to the mind of someone on the spectrum.
That sensation is only amplified in the stage adaptation of Haddon’s book, developed in London by playwright Simon Stephens and currently in production at Portland Center Stage. Christopher’s inner world is made real thanks to a marvelous performance by Jamie Sanders and PCS’ ingenious staging. So real, in fact, it had this father of a kid on the spectrum in tears within the first 10 minutes.
What broke me was a simple gesture. In the play, Christopher finds out someone has killed his neighbor’s dog, and the situation leads to the police questioning him. As with most people with autism, Christopher doesn’t like to be touched, so when the officer takes his arm, Christopher strikes back and is immediately arrested. His dad (Leif Norby) comes to collect Christopher from the station, and the two reassure each other by touching their fingertips together. Knowing from experience how challenging it is to squeeze even the tiniest bit of physical affection from an autistic child, that little moment of connection broke me.
But I also felt on edge in the moments when Christopher’s hyper-logical view of the world is played for laughs. When he takes it upon himself to investigate the murder of his neighbor’s dog, he starts questioning neighbors and running into sarcasm, anger, and kindness along the way—all of which he can’t process. It leads to some funny exchanges, but I couldn’t see past the striking similarities Christopher shares with my own son to fully appreciate the humor.
That’s entirely a testament to Sanders’ performance, and how Stephens and this production’s director, Marissa Wolf, work to take the audience into Christopher’s head. To give us a sense of how this young man experiences the world, the stage is almost entirely bare and white. Christopher moves through it, surrounded by a passel of actors in grey sweatshirts who mime everyday objects or applaud joyously at his Tetris abilities. It’s down to Sanders to bring the color to the character, and he does so by stiffening his body, curling and twisting his hands, and delivering his lines in a flat affect.
As with when I read Haddon’s novel, my heart ached for Christopher throughout. Especially in the key scene where a flood of new information causes Christopher to melt down. Watching Christopher struggle, and then seeing his dad tenderly warn him he needed to touch him to help get him into bed... reader, I was a wreck before we even got to intermission.