Pictured: Jamie Sanders. Photo by Cory Weaver.
By Bec Pennington
“If you’ve met one individual with autism, you’ve met one individual with autism.”
– Dr. Stephen Shore
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” was a much-lauded book before it was an award-winning Broadway play, and as with other pieces that seek to address delicate matters of human experience, it did not come without controversy. Questions about representation were brought up when it first appeared on stage, and also concerns of the depiction of an “aspie” by an author who admitted he did little research into Asperger’s (now considered part of the autism spectrum in the fifth version of the psychiatric master reference, the DSM).
This one hits a bit close to home, and I must admit reticence at the task of reviewing the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s new production, considering how easily botched the subject is, and what that can mean for my own 15-year-old neuro-atypical son and others of his generation.
Autism is widely mischaracterized in media and even in awareness campaigns, much to the chagrin of many who are diagnosed on the spectrum. It’s often viewed strangely as an entity unto itself, blamed for financial distress, broken families, pain and suffering of all kinds. “Curious” certainly doesn’t shy away from these notions, but because we see the world through the eyes of the protagonist, the typical separation of the diagnosis from the human being rings hollow. Parents cannot in good faith blame a child – or his condition – for their own actions. When we see this played out in front of our own eyes, we weep rightly for the injustice.
The play opens right away with a shocking sight. Christopher is in trouble, tossed through a dizzyingly fast set of misunderstandings that result in an encounter with police. We laugh at his literal and logical responses to the confused officers, but there is an underlying discomfort to thinking of what could happen. This teetering on the edge of disaster is a constant theme to the play, enabling the viewer to step outside the boy’s head from time to time and identify with his caregivers’ concern. But Christopher is more capable than most will choose to believe. He decides to play detective, writing a book of his findings as he conducts his investigation. One mystery unfolds into two, and we share in his frustration as he is dismissed and rejected at every turn. His elderly neighbor, who seems to truly care, nevertheless cannot help him find all the answers; neither does his deeply sympathetic teacher. Even his father, who has lovingly raised him in his mother’s absence is a heartbreaking letdown for the teenager, who, after carefully weighing his options, sets out on his own to follow the only lead left.
Produced with the intent of immersion, the Rep makes full use of the space’s amazing theatrical capabilities. Grant Wilcoxen’s stunning lighting design coupled with the perfectly simple and sleek scenic work by Arnulfo Maldonado are profoundly effective, almost characters themselves, and the ensemble supporting cast is notably choreographed as integral fixtures by Erika Chong Shuch. That said, for those with sensory sensitivities, the experience may be overwhelming, and it is praiseworthy that this company is offering a special presentation for those who need a gentler environment.
In light of representation, the Rep has been careful to publicize the lead actor’s Tourette’s diagnosis with his blessing – not because the two conditions are comparable (they are very different), but to demonstrate the effort to bring someone into the role whose experience with otherness would ensure empathy and dignity in portrayal. Jamie Sanders is remarkable in his ability to flesh out this somewhat stereotypical role into a fully delightful boy-almost-man. His generous and vulnerable Christopher is captivating, believable, and a true delight. His final question lingers in the mind well after the lights come up and the evening is over, giving pause to the skeptics and hope for the future.
“Curious” is hilarious, intense, bittersweet, and triumphantly successful at bringing the world of one character to the hearts of his audience, and offering us the chance to invoke empathy for all who are differently-abled.