‘Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time’ explores lonely world of autism

Strong teen lead helps play hit the right notes
‘Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time’ explores lonely world of autism
Photo by Jonathan J. Miner
Siobahn (Carrie Sweet, in the background) is one of the few characters who can reach Christopher (Payton Cardella, foreground) in Strollers Theatre’s production of “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

Author Mark Haddon made the teenage hero in his hugely popular novel “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time” a wannabe astronaut. In many ways, that teenager, Christopher Boone, lived on his own planet every single day, struggling through impassable stretches of space to connect with his fellow human beings.

It’s hard enough that Christopher is a teenager. He’s also a teenager camped somewhere on the autism spectrum. His self assessment of “behavioral difficulties” glosses over the difficult truth: He recoils from nearly all human touch and drops screaming to the ground whenever any situation becomes even remotely overwhelming. He’s brilliant and thoughtful — the kid can ace math tests well above his grade level — but he’s also incapable of puzzling out facial expression and nonverbal social cues. And as the play begins, he’s standing over the corpse of a dog who’s been murdered with a pitchfork.

Nineteen-year-old newcomer Payton Cardella fronts Strollers Theatre’s current production of Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of “Curious” (playing through May 25 at the Bartell Theatre) and he proves to be an excellent choice. Cardella has Asperger’s Syndrome, and while it’s clear he’s not just playing himself here — as director Kathleen Tissot has astutely noted, one case of autism is not at all like another — it’s equally clear the perspective he brings contributes to a convincing performance. Between the ways he scrupulously avoids eye contact when he speaks to others to the way he launches into meaningful monologues about math and metaphors, he sparks an easy fascination in the audience.

The actors portraying Christopher’s separated parents have as tricky a task as Cardella. Both roles feature people who’ve made horrible, selfish and damaging choices in the face of an overwhelming situation, trapping the audience in a hazy, no man’s land between feeling both sympathy and anger toward them. As Christopher’s salt-of-the-earth dad, Ed (Edric Johnson) adopts such a light touch that the impact of the play’s brief bursts of violence and revelation end up feeling dampened. The incidents are just things that happen and the action moves on.

Carrie Sweet helps grounds things as Siobahn, Christopher’s school counselor, who drives the play’s many meta elements by reading aloud from the book Christopher’s written about his experiences — a book the school wants to convert into a play.

Erin S. Baal’s set — a towering wall of colored lightbox squares that loosely resemble the Tetris squares Christopher arranges on his computer in his spare time — is impressive and visually interesting. It has one unfortunate Achilles heel: Three of the panels are oversized dry-erase boards on which the ensemble actors scribble the location of each scene as it begins, a visual cue for the audience’s benefit. The trouble is, dry-erase markers are inherently awful things. Every time an actor tries to use one, what’s written quickly ends up too faint to read from a distance. Fortunately, the boards are also kind of superfluous — well, at least until the post-curtain call scene. The actors and the script give more than enough cues about who’s where and doing what.

Speaking of those actors, the ensemble (Judy Kimball, John Jajewski, Joshua K. Paffel, Megan Siebert, Sarah Edlund and Tom Amacher) do a good job speaking with British accents in their roles in Christopher’s quest to solve the mystery of the canine’s cause of death. They’re particularly effective when they’re asked to function as objects in Christopher’s perception of his physical world, like when they stand in for the shifting doors of a London Tube train, shuffling and leaning back and forth.

Haddon’s book and Stephen’s play remain beloved because they offer what feels like an honest and thoughtful look into a world most of us never experience and scarcely understand. Strollers’ production captures that vibe, and more than earns its triumphant ending.

Aaron R. Conklin pens “Stage Write,” his award-winning coverage of the Madison-area theater scene, for madisonmagazine.com.