Wednesday, May 3, 2023

REVIEW: Summit Playhouse's Brave, Wise Production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" Is Local Theater at Its Finest

By Ruth Ross

When I read that the Summit Playhouse’s penultimate choice for its 105th season would be a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I reacted with disbelief. After all, the play involving an autistic teenager was performed on Broadway on a $1 million complex, computerized set. How on Earth were the cast, director and scenic/lighting/sound designers going to pull this off? (Right: Josh Pearlstein as Christopher Boone)

Well, I needn’t have worried: Far exceeding my doubts, the troupe at the little playhouse on 10 New England Avenue in Summit can add another notch to their belt of powerful, polished and totally engrossing productions. This is one you do not want to miss!

Despite its myriad of frequently changing scenes, the plot of 
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is rather straightforward: The curious incident of the title is the mystery surrounding the death of Wellington, his neighbor’s poodle, whom autistic 15-year-old Christopher Boone finds speared with a garden fork. While trying to discover who killed Wellington, he encounters resistance from many neighbors, but mostly from his father Ed, who has told Christopher that his mother is dead. Upon discovering that his father has lied to him, Christopher embarks upon a journey to London to find his mother, an odyssey even more courageous and challenging because the boy has never traveled by train or been to London and finds noise and physical contact so unbearable that it causes him to writhe on the floor, moaning loudly, covering his ears and hitting himself.

First, a word about the set. Designed and constructed by Douglas Eaton, it consists of three large panels, upon which are projected videos that provide context for the drama unfolding onstage. Director Jonathan Wierzbicki gave Eaton a dozen different projections from which to select the most appropriate to convey Christopher’s view and reaction to the new world he encounters. For me, the most evocative is the video of many feet walking forward and backward; it captures the London crowd that so intimidates Christopher. Video Projector Technician Danny Griffin is to be commended for timing the projections to appear at the right time and to segue smoothly one to another. Eaton’s design also involves ledges on each panel, a set of boxes that can be moved around and configured for a variety of situations, and a table carried on and off as needed. Who needs a $1 million set when a creative group of artists manages quite well on what is probably a very limited budget! Well done!

The direction and acting match the mastery of set design, as well. Front and center is Josh Pearlstein, who portrays Christopher. Onstage for the entirety of the two-hour performance, he recites an enormous amount of dialogue while never breaking character, and breaking our hearts when he cannot cope with the stress, confusion and noise and melts down in distress. His powerful portrayal of an autistic young man who is gifted in math, trusting and blunt, curious and stubborn is convincing and natural. This young actor is slated for great things.

Director Wierzbicki has cast an equally talented group of actors and moves them around the stage in a smooth, well-choreographed dance without an accident! Danny Greg, as Christopher’s father Ed, struggles with his atypical child while nursing his own sorrows. As Christopher’s teacher/therapist Siobhan, Juliet Hommes recites her student’s inner thoughts and offers him steady, calm encouragement as he faces the unfamiliar world. A droll Mary Murdock is well-meaning as Mrs. Alexander, a neighbor who offers cake and a hug to Christopher, only to be rebuffed by his blunt refusal. Julie Anne Nolan’s Mrs. Shears, the neighbor whose dog has been killed, bears the Boones a grudge, but who can blame her? And finally, as Christopher’s mother Judy, Jennifer Padley (right, with Pearlstein) conveys the mixed feelings and helplessness felt by parents of an autistic child—especially the mother, who often thinks the disability is her fault. Her mixed feelings are totally understandable. Michael Patrick Damato and Lewis Decker round out the ensemble in a variety of roles they perform very well.

Mark Reilly’s lighting design provides appropriate atmosphere when needed, and Jonathan Wierzbicki’s sound enhances that atmosphere. Cindy Magalio’s costumes suit the characters who wear them while Joanne Guerriero’s properties lend a verisimilitude to the various scenes that occur on that surreal set.

Despite our growing awareness of the syndrome, autism remains a poorly understood phenomenon. That the autism spectrum is wide, meaning that no two autistic individuals are alike, makes understanding even more difficult. As Wierzbicki writes in his Director’s Notes, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time offers us a “unique opportunity to experience the world through the eyes, ears, and mind” of an autistic teenager. Fear and stress are endemic to autism; stress and fear considered by us as a normal situation can cripple the autistic child. Thus, Christopher’s journey—physical and emotional—is courageous and elevating to him and to us. As Wierzbicki concludes, after two hours “walking around in the skin of young Christopher, [we] might be surprised to see more of [ourselves] than [we] expect.”

Whatever your own personal response to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I guarantee that you will have a dramatic experience you won’t forget for a long time. The Summit Playhouse’s courageous production of this play is one of the finest I have ever seen. It is appropriate for everyone from the age of 12 to 99! So, head on over to 10 New England Avenue in Summit where you’ll see top-notch theater without having to pay tolls and parking!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time will be performed at the Summit Playhouse, 10 New England Avenue, Summit, through May 13. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 PM, and Sunday, May 7, at 2 PM. For tickets and information, call the box office at 908.273.2192 or visit online.