From lovable Dory in “Finding Nemo” to the straight-shooting Sam in “Atypical,” the demand to see neurodivergent characters reflected in plays, movies and television has hit peak interest, and the cast of Cabrillo Theatre Arts’ “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has brought that interest to life at the Black Box Theatre.
Cabrillo student Mathew Chipman plays 15-year-old Christopher Boone, the lead of the play who is a mathematician with some “behavioral difficulties” living in Swindon, England.
From the very first scene, Boone is immediately observed to be on the autism spectrum as he moves through the production with neurodivergent tendencies: counting aloud, difficulty with noisy environments, trouble with relationships and the need to find order within chaos. Chipman brings a naïveté to the role that is both charming and disarming, allowing the audience to see glimpses of the child that is buried inside the man he is becoming.
The plot begins with Boone discovering that a neighbor’s dog, Wellington, has been brutally murdered with a garden pitchfork, launching him into a quest to determine “whodunit” from the cast of characters surrounding him: Boone’s dad Ed (played by William Baker); Wellington’s “parents” Eileen Shears (Soleil Sienna Raine Carn) and Roger Shears (Thomas Webb) and Mrs. Alexander (Mindy Pedlar).
While each of the characters provides relatively few clues to Boone, his interactions with all of them help expand the ways in which Christopher sees the world. In his dad, Christopher finds a man who attempts to protect his son at all costs; in Roger, he is exposed to a dishonest, hostile, and agitated man who ultimately brings Christopher closer to his own mother, and in Mrs. Alexander, he finds comfort and compassion as she enlightens Christopher regarding the hard truth about his own parents’ relationship, which ultimately leads to Christopher discovering the reason (and prime suspect) for Wellington’s death.
Chipman is brilliant in his interpretation of Boone as an atypical individual, finding subtle ways in which to share his feelings without saying a word—stroking the ties hanging from the neck of his omnipresent hoodie, walking in straight lines while counting prime numbers, and curling up in the fetal position when his environment becomes too taxing for his brain to manage.
Each character is compelling, and the staging is innovative; Black Box Theatre is a smaller offshoot of the main theater at the college, and the confined space and rapid scenery changes mean that creativity is key. Props are constructed of panels that drop from the back and sides of the set; hollow black boxes become chairs and bed as they are moved with alacrity by the set crew, and a projector sets each scene with a variety of environments from the inside of Boone’s brain to the beach to the train station.
Supporting characters are well-rounded, and their lines are delivered flawlessly and with believability. One can feel the distress of Boone’s mom Judy (Charlotte Landis), as she comes to terms with the way her decisions have impacted her son; Siobhan, Christopher’s mentor at school and paraprofessional, offers guidance and comfort to her charge as she helps him navigate the complexities of his world; and Pedlar’s Mrs. Alexander is a warm and gentle neighbor who wants to befriend Christopher and attempts to show him the kindness she believes he deserves.
This small but mighty production brings a weighty storyline to the forefront, and the result is an odyssey through the mind and experiences of those who move through the world in a neurodivergent manner.
The production runs through April 29 at the Black Box Theatre at Cabrillo College. Tickets are available at https://cabrillovapa.universitytickets.com.