Theatre on my Mind

Curious Incident of this Play in Chicago: Young People Deserve Better

In its new Chicago staging, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time just doesn’t fit. Set in England, many of the moments hit Chicagoans differently. There are moments that may shock, and many that may anger.

A Steppenwolf for Young Adults production, Curious Incident is usually praised for showcasing the value of difference in the face of adversity—namely through Christopher (Terry Bell), a neuroatypical fifteen-year-old who stumbles upon the neighborhood dog, dead in the night-time. He’s a math genius who has a harder time reading social cues and absolutely does not lie. He decides to solve the mystery of the dog’s murder and embarks on a journey that everyone views as impossible. The show is an opportunity to showcase bravery and the pains of growing up amid family turmoil and uncertainty.

Adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s 2003 book of the same name, this two-and-a-half hour production feels less like a nostalgic read and more like a musical where the opening number never comes. The set feels Chicago in its dark bareness, leaving the stage to be activated by the tight ensemble and stellar projections from Joseph A. Burke. It is difficult to discern where and when we are with the play-within-a-play motif, and the show is noticeably lacking a dramaturg. Though oversized, stackable cubes and handfuls of chairs aim to place us in a high school drama club, this complicates Christopher’s perspective. He emanates awe and curiosity, but there is little to carry the audience along. Two moments really stand out as a testament to the physicality of the actors and ability of Jonathan Berry to direct them: One is gravity-defying, lifting us into space, up and away. The other lays a plethora of train in a path toward hope until reality and anxiety rips the rungs apart.

But here in Chicago, this play sits on much different ground than its original home.

On October 5th, Jason van Dyke was charged with murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery of the seventeen-year-old Laquan McDonald. In our world, a black boy can be shot for existing in the wrong place at the wrong time. With the casting of Cedric Mays and Terry Bell as a father and son, both black, there is much to be explored in a relationship that is further altered when we learn the mother, Judy (Rebecca Spence), is white. There are complicated racial dynamics at play, especially when the only men of color are the only characters that enact violence.

When Christopher becomes overwhelmed by a police officer and retaliates by hitting him, this is incredibly more dangerous than depicted. In the world of the play (London, where cops don’t have guns), the presence of police is comforting, as they are seemingly a force of protection. This does not translate well to Chicago. And, in another moment of extreme tension, Judy threatens to call the police on the father, Ed, which creates another dire situation treated nonchalantly. Later on, her tears are even weaponized against Christopher as she pressures him to comfort her in a way that compromises his own comfort.

Some may question if our youth will witness the actions of the play in this light. Ultimately, it is irresponsible for Steppenwolf for Young Adults to cast not only a neurotypical Christopher, but also perpetuate harmful stereotypes in the name of “diversity and inclusion”. We are past the tropes and tokens. Young people are the ones leading the revolution for change. Young people deserve better than this.

Originally published via Rescripted’s Young Critic Mentorship Program