Its theater is definitely of the no-frills variety, a black box constructed in the space of two public storage units in an industrial park in Ventura, but there is no denying the talent that filled the stage of the Fractured Actors Theater Company’s current production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Featuring an incendiary and deeply affecting performance by 19-year-old Benjamin Colby Wilson, Simon Stephens’ riveting 2012 play is based on Mark Haddon’s 2003 mystery novel about a fifteen-year-old boy who endeavors to find out who killed his neighbor’s dog Wellington with a pitchfork and left him in their garden.
The stage play isn’t so much about the identity of the killer (we find that out before the first act ends), but of the boy Christopher, who suffers from autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a range of neurodevelopment disorders that includes autism, Asperger syndrome, and other related conditions. The disorder doesn’t fully disable Christopher; he is able to achieve limited social functions, but Christopher’s problems are similar to those depicted in Dustin Hoffman’s character in the motion picture Rain Man: a phobia about being touched, a preoccupation with mathematical minutiae (reciting prime numbers or mathematical equations in order to cope with stressful situations), and the inability to look people directly in the eye.
Benjamin Wilson has impressed us before, excelling especially in portrayals of characters with personality flaws, most notably as the tragic Billy Bibbit in Conejo Player’s outstanding production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest last year. Wilson’s portrayal of Christopher is more than remarkable. He completely disappears into the role. We watch as his fingers move involuntarily, how he cannot stay still for even an instant, pacing back and forth and even jumping up and down if he is forced to stand in one place for more than a few seconds. Christopher is also obsessed with telling the truth. He is meticulously honest in anything that he says, responding to questions instantly, without even thinking about the consequences of his actions. Even when it is suggested to him that he turn his thoughts into a play he considers it a lie because acting would not be real.
Christopher is the product of a broken home. His well-meaning but verbally abusive father Ed (played with conflicting nuances by Jeff Ham) is frustrated by his son’s inability to deal with the world around him. His mother Judy (in an outstanding and sympathetic performance by Shannon McNally Ham) has moved to London because of conflicts with Ed over Christopher, and is now living with Roger Shears, the owner of the dog, who Christopher discovers was killed by Ed in anger over his wife’s betrayal.
Fearing that his father might be capable of murdering him too, Christopher leaves home to find his mother. His journey takes him to a bustling train station, which proves to be a perilous physical threat to him as he yelps in terror every time he is jostled by people rushing for their trains. The choreography involved in depicting this scene is one of the highlights of the play. Being a black box theater, no set pieces are used and only a handful of props, such as Christopher’s pet rat Toby, represented by a mechanical representation operated by remote control.
As the play progresses, we realize that the story is not a mystery, but a touching display of a family in turmoil. Both parents love Christopher but are frustrated on how to deal with his condition. Ed soon realize that his efforts to force Christopher to behave like a normal teenager will not work and he finally learns to deal with his son’s disorder. Judy’s more tender-hearted treatment of Christopher is heartbreaking and both Jeff and Shannon Ham (they are husband and wife in real life) give affecting performances.
In the play version, Christopher’s story is told by his compassionate para-professional and mentor, Siobhan, played by Janelle Phaneuf. An ensemble of five (Erica S. Connell, Bryan White, Michael Lie Murphy, Greg Howland, and Kathy White) play a variety of characters representing ticket takers, policemen, and passersby who Christopher encounters during his journey. When Christopher returns home to take his A-level math exams, we revel in his achievement.
The play, which is sensitively directed by Karyn Noel, features original music composed by Dave Knepper. The Broadway production, which ran for nearly two years after its 2014 premiere, won the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an outstanding, thought-provoking, and emotionally rich production, heart-warming in its sympathetic portrayal of its central character, brought beautifully to life by Benjamin Wilson.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time concludes its run Sunday, April 7. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.