On its surface, the play with the long name appears to be about a boy on a detective mission, but it's so much more, the director and lead actor say.
The Empire Theatre Company is presenting the Tony Award-winning play "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" as the final production of its seventh season.
Written by Simon Stevens, the play is based on the best-selling novel by the same name by Mark Haddon. Described by one reviewer as "a heartwarming and uplifting adventure story," the play garnered Broadway's Tony Award for Best Play in 2015 and the 2015 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, among other notable honors.
It tells the story of Christopher, 15, a mathematical genius who has an autism spectrum condition. The playwright invites the audience to see the world through his eyes as he confronts assumed truths and discovers life-altering secrets.
"I love that it's the perspective of a 15-year-old boy," said Kathy Coudle-King, director.
Christopher is ill-equipped to interpret daily life, she said. He has never ventured alone beyond the end of his road; he detests being touched, and he distrusts strangers.
After a neighbor's dog is found killed with a garden spear, Christopher finds himself under suspicion and becomes determined to discover who was responsible. His detective work, forbidden by his father, takes him on a thrilling journey that upends his world, said Coudle-King.
In her role as director, Coudle-King takes an unusual approach by seating the audience on stage, surrounding the cast, to creating an intimate atmosphere. Only 60 tickets are sold for each performance.
"It's not quite theater-in-the-round, but it's cozy," she said.
Close proximity enhances the sense that "you're going behind closed doors-and things are messy there," she said. "You feel more like a fly on the wall, which is the only way we would hear about this story. It's so personal and infused with family dynamics."
Walter Criswell, who plays Christopher, said, "Having the audience right up next to you, it's almost more like a film. It can make things hard, because in theater you're trained to telegraph to get your idea across. You're sort of trained to be overly expressive."
The intimate space "allows for more subtlety in performance that you normally don't have a chance to do, but there's also an intense focus on you," he said. "There's a lot less room for artificial actions and emotions because people will be able to spot them right away."
Christopher's story is also an exploration of the parent-child relationship and how, so often, parents feel unprepared to parent any child, said Coudle-King.
"This set of parents is really in over their heads. They're doing the best they can, but even their best isn't too good. (They) don't always make good choices, but they are doing their best" and they love their son.
"Christopher, on the other hand, is on his own journey to gain confidence in this world in spite of his personal challenges."
To help prepare Criswell and the actors who play his parents, Darin Kerr and Melissa Gjellstad, Coudle-King invited parents and individuals with autism to attend rehearsals.
"They were open and candid about the challenges and joys they face," she said. "But we have been ever mindful of the phrase, 'If you know someone with autism, you know one person with autism.' "
'A real challenge'
Criswell, who has been acting in community theater for more than a decade, said playing Christopher "is a real challenge, but really fulfilling to be able to do."
"Christopher is a complex character that I think a lot of actors (would consider) a dream role, because it is so far outside of what you typically see in theater, especially in drama.
"There are not many roles that demand you to sort of reach in and find very honest emotions, because with Christopher, he often says, 'I never lie. I can't tell a lie.' "
And he doesn't, Criswell said. "It's a little bit jarring at first to have somebody be so blunt, but there's also a refreshing innocence."
The unique challenge of this role is "making sure you're playing it true to life, not necessarily representative of a person with autism and not as a caricature of autism," he said.
As the story about an adolescent with autism explores the question of "how do you interact with a world that doesn't cater to you, that isn't ready for you, and isn't built for you?"
Preparation for the role included "watching a lot of videos of Temple Grandin," an author and well-known spokeswoman for autism, he said. He added that the parents and children with autism who gave input at rehearsals were "really enlightening."
The overarching theme of the show is "the universal experience of being human," Criswell said. "There are a lot of emotional moments, insights and truths that come out from Christopher and from the world around him. It's something we can all relate to."
The theme reinforces the idea that "even though some people think differently and act differently, we all come from the same place and we all have our own eccentricities. They might just not be as obvious."
In addition to Criswell, the cast includes regional actors Amy Driscoll, Tyler Folkedahl, Melissa Gjellstad, Denny Jacobs, Darin Kerr, Courtney Miller, Brenna Skallet, Kelly Stagnaro and Matt Stavens.
Crew members are Marcus Woodard, stage manager; Chuck Baskerville, lighting designer; Sara Larson, light technician; Matt Opsahl, sound designer; Amy Lyste, costumer; Spencer Carmichael, animal handler; and Tamara Auer, violin and viola.
The Empire Theatre Company has partnered with the Arc, Upper Valley to distribute information and educational resources about autism.
The ETC, under the artistic direction of Chris Berg, is the only professional theater company in the region.
If You Go
What: "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," Tony Award-winning play
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and April 23-27
Where: Empire Arts Center, 415 DeMers
Tickets: $19 for adults; $15 for students and military ($5 rush tickets are available one hour before curtain (cash only; all members of your party must be present for rush tickets)
For more information: Call the Empire Arts Center box office at (701) 746-5500 or visit www.empireartscenter.com.