Christopher John Francis Boone doesn’t know it yet, but he is about to have a life-changing adventure. The 15-year-old is sure of only one thing as “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” opens at Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine: He did not kill his neighbor’s dog.
It is the discovery of Wellington’s dead body, a small pitchfork thrust in the dog’s side, that sets the story in motion. Christopher’s determination to solve the mystery will change his life forever, along with the way he and others perceive him and how his perceptions are impacted by autism. It takes place in Swindon and London, England.
The play, based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel, was written by Simon Stephens. It premiered in London nine years later and moved to Broadway in 2014. Over the past 18 months or so, it has been performed by different Maine theater companies in Winter Harbor, Portland, Belfast, Berwick and Orono.
The University of Maine’s School of Performing Arts, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 24, wraps “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in some stunning technology that gives the production a cinematic feel. From the music and sound to the lighting and images projected on the set to the sparse props, the technical team lets the audience feel what Christopher does. His senses sometimes overload, and he collapses in a moaning heap, crying out for it all to stop.
As much as the performances, the technical work helps theatergoers stand in Christopher’s shoes and to feel what he feels. The work behind the scenes on this production is as fine as that of any professional company in the state.
Set designer Dan Bilodeau, lighting designer Christopher Annas-Lee and costume designer Michelle Handley beautifully execute director Cary Libkin’s vision for the play, but it is the music, sound and projections designed by Curtis Craig that give UMaine’s version of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” its heart. One of the most important things that Craig’s soundscape does is emphasize the silences in Christopher’s life, which is when important things seem to happen.
As Christopher, Elijah McTiernan gives an unforgettable performance. He is on stage for the entire two-act play, and his unguarded portrayal pulls the audience into an autistic teenager’s world. McTiernan’s ability to open himself up emotionally on stage is rare for a college-aged actor. He gave an equally fine performance last year in UMaine’s production of “This Stupid F##king Bird.” As odd as it sounds, only by stripping his soul bare as an actor is McTiernan able to portray how Christopher’s condition keeps him closed off from his emotions and his parents.
One of the only people who understands Christopher is his teacher Siobhan, portrayed by Vanessa Graham. Her portrayal as the guiding, understanding and influential teacher reminded theatergoers of educators who have made a difference in their lives. Graham exudes warmth as the one person Christopher can always return to for comfort.
As Christopher’s parents, Judy and Ed, played by Emilia Byrne and Nate Scott, respectively, are a study in contrast.
Judy is as emotionally open as Ed is closed off. Byrne emanates an unconditional love for her son despite her frustration with his behavior. When she finally appears in the play, Byrne, who is an experienced performer, shines like a beacon for Christopher.
Scott, who is appearing in his first UMaine show, exudes anger and little else. His portrayal makes it hard to understand why Ed, who is a strong advocate for his son at school, tells the boy Judy is dead after she leaves the family. Because of Scott’s one-dimensional performance, when Ed gives Christopher a new pet, it feels more like a bribe than a gift wrapped in love.
Half a dozen actors play various roles and sometimes act as a Greek chorus. None of them give particularly memorable performances except for Rose Michelson as Mrs. Alexander. Her portrayal of Christopher’s elderly neighbor, who gives him some important information, is awful. Her voice quavers, her hands shake, her wig does not sit properly on her head — all mistakes of an inexperienced actor that could and should have been corrected by Libkin.
The student cast works hard at the English accents under the tutelage of dialect coach Bernard Hope, but they are inconsistent. Sometimes a character sounds British, then suddenly Irish, or drops an accent altogether. Graham deserves credit for the consistency she achieves in her accent.
In spite of a couple of shortcomings, UMaine’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a triumph for the School of the Performing Arts that has had trouble consistently mounting relevant and cohesive productions over the past five years. Christopher’s journey is beautifully told and almost perfectly executed in this production. McTiernan’s multi-layered performance and the show’s technical wizardry deserve a wide audience and standing ovation.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” will be performed through Nov. 24, in Hauck Auditorium at the University of Maine. For information, call 207-581-1755 or visit umaine.edu/spa.