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Burg Review: “Curious Incident,” a puzzle beautifully solved at Theatre Harrisburg

A scene from “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” now playing at Theatre Harrisburg. Photo: Chris Guerrisi

This play should come with a warning: contains more math than is digestible on weekends. Though following number logic feels like work, it’s integral to understanding the main character.

In “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Christopher Boone [Garrett Kinsley], a 15-year-old autistic boy, interprets the world through numbers, patterns, rituals and literal meanings. In a mind so concrete, pictorial and organized, abstract concepts like heaven, God and emotions do not compute.

It’s through this first-person lens that Kinsley skillfully takes us on Christopher’s journey. Imagine the stage as his mind. Props are arranged logically and linearly, with images inside cubed boxes, with trapdoors and ramps. Different scenes flash on the walls like a choppy projector. Each memory is compartmentalized into boxes.

Irregular transitions between each of the play’s 52 scenes reflect his abrupt nature. Voices in his head are personified. The chalkboard walls and flooring are symbolic of his black-and-white interpretations. In a way, the setting becomes a character, gliding us through Christopher’s mind seamlessly between past and present without chronology confusion.

We first meet Christopher in his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ [Andrea Stephenson] front yard. He rocks self-soothingly, petting her dog, which is pierced with a pitchfork. When a crowd gathers, escalating the situation, Christopher seems unaware that he looks guilty. What may have been easily clarified ends with Christopher at the police station and Dad [Anthony Leukus] rescuing him.

Christopher becomes fixated on finding the killer, despite his Dad forbidding it. Christopher’s search starts in the neighborhood, where a kindly grandmother [Lois Heagy] tries to befriend him. He rebuffs her friendship in the same way he avoids eye contact, human touch and foods that are yellow and brown. His teacher [Brenda C. Eppley] seems to be the only adult outside his family able to penetrate his shell.

In the same way Christopher unravels the mystery of who killed Mrs. Shears’ dog, his own life begins to spiral when his sleuthing uncovers family secrets. He chronicles his findings in a private book, turning this play into a story-within-a-story. Dad reacts violently when he finds the book, showcasing uncomfortable father-son stage combat.

Then the mood shifts. Act two finds Christopher running away to London. He mismanages through several train stations, endangering himself repeatedly. Then he painfully navigates interpersonal situations, past and present.

Although Dad usually handles Christopher well, Dad’s capacity is limited. Leukus balances the dark and light within Dad’s character to make him sympathetic, bringing forth the dichotomy in an unnervingly human way.

Also awkward to watch is Christopher’s mother [Callie Alvanitakis] trying to manage his public tantrums. Alvanitakis beautifully translates that discomfort to her unsettled relationships with the other characters.

Christopher uses his routines to push himself through a tired haze to focus on taking his high-level math exam, three years ahead of his current level. He cares enough about this exam to expend a whole stick of chalk explaining complex geometry/algebra to the audience. I won’t tell you which theorem; no spoilers here.

Theatre Harrisburg’s Executive Director Stosh Snyder said, “It’s hard to believe Garrett [Kinsley] is not on the spectrum himself. He really did his research to immerse himself in that role.”

To perfect his character, Kinsley drew on special needs kids his sister teaches. And he had help from the script. “That could have been more work for me, but the character was well defined in the blocking and the text,” he said.

Except for the math problem.

“That monologue was nearly the death of me. I kept blanking at rehearsal,” Kinsley said. “Having chalkboard walls helped, though.”

The walls and other inventive set elements sprang from Director Dave Olmstead’s imagination. He looked to the original novel for pictures, and he sought insights from his students with autism.

“Not having a multi-million-dollar budget allowed me to keep it simple, introducing symbolism, making bold choices, and taking risks,” he said.

Don’t let the scary math warning stop you. Watching this character-driven play was satisfying, like solving a tough riddle or a Sudoku puzzle.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” runs through March 15 at Theatre Harrisburg, Krevsky Center, 513 Hurlock St., Harrisburg. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.theatreharrisburg.com/.

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