NORTH EAST — In Milburn Stone Theatre’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time,” audiences meet Christopher Boone: a 15-year-old British mathematician who is on the autism spectrum.
He sometimes has difficulty interpreting people’s emotions and behaviors, but he finds solace in his numbers, often recounting the Fibonacci sequence or the cubes of the cardinal numbers to calm down or focus.
Christopher likes red but dislikes yellow. He likes his pet rat, Toby, but he dislikes strangers and he would be happy to live as an astronaut in space where he could be alone.
He also has a lot of questions, chief among which is who killed his neighbor’s dog, Wellington. Against the wishes of his father and the other adults in his life, Christopher sets out to solve the mystery of Wellington’s murder.
Soon, however, Christopher learns that there’s more than one mystery at play in this story about trust, exploration and understanding.
The play, inspired by the 2003 novel of the same name by British author Mark Haddon, will run at Cecil College’s Milburn Stone Theatre on Feb. 15-17 and Feb. 22-24.
Director Dan Hutchinson, who also worked on costumes and set design for the show, said he has loved “Curious Incident” ever since reading Haddon’s book.
“I read the book when it first came out years ago and absolutely fell in love with the story,” Hutchinson said. “It touched me personally because I work with children for a living. I see a lot of kids come through that have developmental or processing issues, so I knew it was something that I wanted to do.”
In designing the look of Milburn Stone’s production, Hutchinson wanted the set to be fairly minimalistic so it could be stripped down or added to as needed.
The set features sliding panels that stretch from stage to ceiling — sometimes with images projected upon them to create various settings, other times left stark white.
“I wanted to view the stage as being the inside of Christopher’s mind,” Hutchinson said. “At times, it’s clear; at times, it’s confusing; at times, the thoughts and the sounds are overwhelming. I wanted that to be a feeling that the audience could share with him.”
When he started working on this production, it was important to Hutchinson that the show kept “the genuineness of the piece.”
“It’s a very human story,” he said. “It’s all of us. We all struggle. We all go through confusing times. It doesn’t matter really how your brain processes or works: we all have the same struggles and we just deal with everything differently.”
The tagline of the show is “See your world differently.” Michael Crowley, who plays Christopher, hopes this production helps audiences do just that.
While studying in London a couple years ago, Crowley saw a production of “Curious Incident” that left a lasting impact on him.
“I can honestly say I was changed,” he said. “It made me think differently about people in my life, how I interact with the world and interact with others, and my perspective of others. So I think other people can get that too from this show.”
Crowley said the importance this role holds is not lost on him.
“I knew taking it on that it was a tremendous responsibility to play this particular role with respect and as honestly as possible, so I knew on my part that would require a lot of homework,” he said.
After being selected for the role, Crowley researched what life is like for people who are on the autism spectrum. He watched YouTube videos by people who are on the autism spectrum or by family members of people with autism, as well as working directly with people who are on the spectrum.
“Pretty much from day one, once I knew I got the role, I reached out to as many resources as I could,” he said. “[I reached out to] students from Spectrum Scholars at the University of Delaware to talk to people who are on the autism spectrum to know what it really means to them, what it entails and learn more about sensory issues that people have and color sensitivities, and understanding things about facial recognition.”
Crowley also worked with UD’s Resident Ensemble Players theater group to embody some of the physical indicators that someone with autism might express.
“I wanted to get the physicality down truthfully,” he said. “I reached out to professional actors at the REP theater at the University of Delaware just to kind of talk about how someone on the autism spectrum would move, the thoughts that would go on in their head and how that would manifest into physical action.”
Part of that physicality was Christopher’s use of self-stimulatory behavior, or “stimming,” to deal with their heightened sensory sensitivity.
Some people with autism or other developmental disabilities use “stims” — repetitive physical movements, sounds or words — to calm themselves, particularly when they encounter over-stimulation such as loud noises or bright, flashing lights.
As Christopher, Crowley demonstrates stims such as hand motions, hair tugging and groaning, when his character is touched by others or finds himself in situations with too many stimuli.
Crowley pointed out that other media — like the movies “Rain Man” and “Temple Grandin,” or the television shows “Atypical” and “The Good Doctor” — depict characters on the autism spectrum. However, he said those stories are told from a third-person perspective, as opposed to Christopher getting to tell his own story in “Curious Incident.”
“I think the perspective of this show is so unique in that it is from Christopher’s perspective … You’re in the mind of Christopher and in the mind of someone who is on the autism spectrum. I think that’s very unique and the first of its kind I think that we’ve seen in media or pop culture,” Crowley said.
Originally, Milburn Stone had planned to have a special school matinee performance, but that idea was scrapped after the show did not garner enough reservations from schools, Hutchinson said.
But Hutchinson said Milburn Stone will still honor a discount for students who attend any of the “Curious Incident” performances.
Regardless, Crowley said this show’s performance will teach young people how to be more empathetic, accepting, patient and open-minded.
“I think a lot of kids can identify with Christopher, whether they’re on the autism spectrum or not,” he said. “It’s really a story about difference, which I think any kid growing up at school age really has a lot to learn from and can identify with. I hope they, if they come see it, will maybe change the way that they look at their own classmates, learn acceptance and empathy.”
Crowley encouraged audience members to bring tissues.
“This show is a rollercoaster of emotions,” he said. “It goes from really really low at some points to really really high … It’s a really beautiful ending and you might shed a tear. I know I did.”
A longtime fan of “Curious Incident,” Hutchinson hopes this production will provide an opportunity for people to open their hearts and minds to a new perspective.
“If you want something that’s different, that is maybe a little challenging to see but still incredibly enjoyable, come out, bring friends and tell everyone to come and support us in this production because I feel like it’s an important one for the community to see,” he said.
Performance dates, ticket prices and other information about this production are available at www.milburnstone.com.