It’s a curious thing to take on the role of Christopher Boone, the brilliant but emotionally isolated 15-year-old kid at the center of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” The character’s hypersensitive perceptions present physical, emotional and mental challenges — often at once.
“When the character focuses on something, it opens up doors to that thing,” says Harrison Bryan, the 25-year-old New York-based actor who is bringing to life the central character in Pioneer Theatre Company’s regional premiere of the Tony Award-winning play. “If you can imagine inside that answer is another thought, and inside that thought is another thought. It’s amazing how deep he goes. This process has opened the doors to my awareness, and I think that’s what the play does, too.”
The narrator of Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel is often described, in shorthand, as a kid with autism. “My name is Christopher John Francis Boone. I know all the countries of the world and their capital cities. And every prime number up to 7,057,” is how Christopher introduces himself.
He likes dogs, because you can tell what a dog is thinking. He doesn’t like jokes, because he doesn’t understand them. People confuse him, and he doesn’t like to be touched.
When his teacher, Siobhan, assigns him to write a story of the kind he likes to read, Christopher announces that he is writing a murder mystery. It begins with a shocking scene: the moment he finds his neighbor’s poodle, dead, with a garden fork sticking out of the body.
Following the clues in the mystery, like his hero, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, Christopher learns about his parents’ complicated betrayals. And his journey leads to a more universal story about how his behavior has changed, in profound ways, the lives of those around him.
“Anyone who has ever felt different can relate to his experience of feeling lost in the world where people are constantly questioning your limits and your abilities,” Bryan says.
In press interviews, Haddon and playwright Simon Stephens stress they never labeled Christopher as being on the autism spectrum. The playwright said he focused on the character’s “Christopher-ness.” Christopher describes himself as “a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties.”
The unconventional show won seven Olivier Awards in its premiere London run in 2012 and five Tonys in 2015 during its two-year Broadway run before launching a national tour. The Pioneer production is among the first of the country’s regional theater premieres, reacquainting Utah readers with the story that was the first selection in a Salt Lake City-wide book club in 2005.
The New York production’s innovative lighting and set design helped theatergoers experience their own sensory overload, described by New York Times critic Ben Brantley as “one the most fully immersive works ever to wallop Broadway.”
“We’re creating our own version,” says director Karen Azenberg of working with Daniel Meeker, Paul Miller and returning former PTC staffer Joe Payne on set, lighting and sound designs.
As part of rehearsals, the actors have met with Utah families who are raising children with autism, and they feel a responsibility to be true to the individual nature of the experience of raising hypersensitive children.
Utah actor Stephanie Howell plays Christopher’s mother, Judy, while Tom O’Keefe (who acted in PTC’s 2015 “Outside Mullingar”) plays his father, Ed.
Howell underscores the play’s interesting storytelling. “I love all the different levels it works on,” she says, describing her character as a mother who loves her son intensely even when she is overwhelmed.
O’Keefe marvels about his character’s challenge in relating to a son who doesn’t appreciate physical contact. The father makes a lot of mistakes while trying to do the best he can. “I think this is a beautiful play about compassion,” O’Keefe says.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”
Pioneer Theatre Company presents a regional premiere of a stage adaptation by Simon Stephens based on the novel by Mark Haddon.
When • Sept. 15-30; 7 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday matinees.
Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $25-$44; $5 more day of show; K-12 students are half-price for Monday and Tuesday shows; at 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org
Note • The play includes strong language.