Pioneer Theatre Company’s ‘Curious Incident’ finds its way to emotional bravery

Harrison Bryan commands our attention as Christopher Boone, the acutely sensitive teenager “detecting” the family mysteries at the heart of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

The hype of the novel’s breakout popularity, leading to the unlikely success of London and Broadway stage adaptations and a national tour, makes it hard to approach Pioneer Theatre Company’s regional premiere with fresh eyes.

But this is a winning production, thanks to director Karen Azenberg’s layered, decisive staging. Just one standout element of the show’s technical confidence is Joe Payne’s eloquent sound design, which buoys but never overwhelms the work of the fine cast.

The story unfolds through Christopher’s point of view, which makes Bryan’s mesmerizing yet overwhelming performance so significant, from his character’s nervously fluttering fingers to the difficult set of his jutting, resistant chin. Christopher’s a math-smart kid who endures multiple betrayals from his parents, whose failures aren’t for lack of love or effort.

The story is a good fit for Utah audiences, who have come to understand autism through our families and our neighbors. And yet as my friend Chrissy pointed out on opening night, the story also underscores the universal pain of adolescence, no matter where a sensitive kid might register on the social spectrum.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Harrison Bryan, as Christopher and Melissa Miller as Siobhan in Pioneer Theatre Company's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

Bryan’s most significant onstage relationship is with Melissa Miller, who plays Christopher’s teacher, Siobhan. The character serves as a bridge from the compelling interiority of the central character in Mark Haddon’s 2003 mystery novel to Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation.

Onstage, the teacher serves a dual purpose, as she responds to Christopher as well as translates his inner monologues to the audience. She reads from the novel she has assigned him to write, and then points out it has been adapted into the play we are watching. Miller’s performance is consistently and gracefully understated, even where the script overreaches.

Stephens’ script has its flaws, as its determinedly feel-good message sometimes overpowers the story. The first act is dragged down by exposition before it settles into its storytelling strategies. One of the most interesting of those strategies is how the ensemble (Sarah Shippobotham and Tia Speros are particular standouts) serves as a Greek chorus reacting to the story’s most dramatic turns.

Also charming are the pets: Christopher’s rat, Toby (played by Roscuro and Dot, trained rats!), and a dog, Sandy (a scene-stealer, played energetically by Sunny, an Ogden miniature goldendoodle).

Tom O’Keefe’s (Anthony in PTC’s 2015 production of “Outside Mullingar”) performance as Ed, Christopher’s father, is one of the show’s emotional anchors. O’Keefe makes us believe Ed’s love for his son. Stephanie Howell, as Christopher’s mother, strikes a balance between her desire to protect her son and to save herself. Howell and O’Keefe make art out of a palm-to-palm gesture in reaching out to the son who can’t stand being touched.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) (left to right) Stephanie Howell, as Judy, Tom O'Keefe as Ed and Harrison Bryan, as Christopher in Pioneer Theatre Company's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

The Broadway production’s set and lighting designs packed a sensory wallop, but according to some reviewers, seemed shamelessly manipulative. Pioneer guest designer Daniel Meeker’s modular set appears more streamlined, yet still provides layers of narratively useful sensory elements; Paul Miller’s lighting design aids but doesn’t overpower the story.

“I don’t like acting because it is pretending that something is real when it is not really real at all so it is kind of a lie,” Christopher tells his teacher. In its most authentic moments, Pioneer’s “Curious Incident” finds the emotional bravery in pretending.

 “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”<br>When • Reviewed Sept. 15; plays Mondays through Thursdays, 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. Saturday matinees, through Sept. 30<br> Where • Simmons Pioneer Memorial Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East, Salt Lake City <br> Tickets • $25-$44; $5 more day of show; K-12 students are half-price for Monday and Tuesday shows; 801-581-6961 or pioneertheatre.org <br>Note • The play includes strong language