Mixed Blood Theatre is no stranger to depicting the world of people who live on the autism spectrum. From 2006’s “Vestibular Sense” to last season’s “Orange,” the theater has shown a consistent ability to depict these individuals and their perspective with integrity and wisdom, humor and heart.
That trend happily continues with the company’s engaging and engrossing production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
The play follows the plot of the 2003 novel on which it’s based relatively closely: The incident referred to in the title has to do with a canine found dead under suspicious circumstances by Christopher, a budding mathematician. The mysterious death sets the non-neuro-typical 15-year old on an investigative journey that eventually reaches into his own family and sets him on adventures that test his cognitive and emotional limits.
Mark Haddon never used the word “autism” in describing Christopher in his novel. Rather, as he once told an interviewer, “I gave him kind of nine or 10 rules that he would live his life by.” MacGregor Arney, who plays Christopher in the Mixed Blood staging, follows that same sense of relentless consistency.
His “stimming” behaviors — rocking on his feet, playing with the cords of his hoodie — are precise, almost mechanistic. The words tumble out of his mouth, seemingly as fast as Christopher can think them. Even his cries in a handful of moments of extremis are a consistent, wrenching, duo-tone bray. It’s an incredibly disciplined performance that never asks for sympathy but demands acceptance.
But “The Curious Incident…” isn’t a play about autism, nor is Christopher meant to monolithically represent people who share his neurological condition. The play is a mystery (a couple mysteries, actually) and it’s a story about relationships among flawed individuals. The success of director Jack Reuler’s production is in the way it casts light on those deficiencies without allowing them to define the characters.
And so Judy (Miriam Laube), who fled Christopher and his father because she simply could not handle the family dynamics, is allowed to be wise and nurturing instead of shrill and selfish. His more patient and forbearing father, Ed (Zack Myers, spinning a 180-degree turn from the gruff, misanthropic character he played a couple weeks ago in Mixed Blood’s “How to Use a Knife”) is no saint, making almost irreparable mistakes with his son. Some of the people who casually encounter Christopher treat him with patience and kindness; others opt for blasé cruelty.
So it goes. To the degree that “The Curious Incident…” has a perspective about difference, it’s this: The world is not an easy place for people who don’t fit in conventionally, and the play doesn’t equate survival or periodic success with feel-good, against-the odds triumph.
At the end, Christopher has discovered that he’s capable of doing more in the mainstream milieu than he thought, which encourages him to dream big. “Does this mean I can do anything?” he asks his mentor. She doesn’t answer him: The truth is too uncertain and complicated and nuanced for Christopher’s binary receptors.
And perhaps for ours as well.