In Simon Stephens’ award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (adapted from Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name), we meet teenager Christopher Boone, a math genius living with his father in Swindon, England. That Christopher is highly intelligent is obvious, but it soon becomes clear as well that he is affected by a disorder somewhere on the autism spectrum, making it a challenge for him to face bright lights, loud noises, physical contact or human emotions.
The young actor playing Christopher in Florida Studio Theatre’s Sarasota premiere of the play (onstage through March 23 at the Gompertz Theatre) understands the character well. Alexander Stuart, or Alex as he is usually called, is on the autism spectrum himself, living with a nonverbal learning disorder that, he explains, “makes it difficult to read other people’s emotions. It’s taken me years of working on it” to adapt.
“During high school and college [he’s a 2017 grad of Columbia College in Chicago], I knew I had it and I always picked up on the things it made difficult for me, not how it does well for me,” Stuart says. “Now I realize that I’m able to see toxicity before it affects me, and it leads me to develop more trust in people before pursuing a relationship. Like with a lot of people with an aptitude for music or drawing, it’s because a piece of their brain is very apt at that, and they just need the methods to develop it.”
Stuart’s special ability may also help him onstage, especially in a role like Christopher’s, where a fair amount of physicality is involved. (Stuart has a minor in stage combat experience, and, he says, a good sense of distance and spatial awareness on the stage.) The storyline has Christopher trying to solve, à la his hero Sherlock Holmes, the mystery of who killed a neighbor’s dog. But another mystery in his life relates to his mother, and the journey he takes by train to London, on his own, to see her—an intense visual and aural experience for someone like him.
Stuart has played Christopher once before, in an Actors Theatre of Louisville production. “I aimed to find a way to bring him to physical life, with some tics, but not to be a caricature or offensive,” he says. “My goal has been to not make Christopher the autistic person you’ve seen in movies or TV, not robotic or like Rain Man [Dustin Hoffman as an autistic savant in the film of the same name.] He’s a full human being, and we need to see what he’s thinking and feeling.”
FST’s producing artistic director, Richard Hopkins, is directing the show. “I saw it in London three or so years ago, and I fell in love with it,” he says. “I’ve been trying to get the rights ever since. It’s on my top 10 list of plays, and I thought if I loved it, maybe the audience would. It’s so natural, honest, rich and filled with heart
At press time, Hopkins was still pondering the best ways to place the audience fully in the mind of Christopher, as for example with a scene where he’s floating in space. “You have several choices of how to do that, and we’ll experiment with them in rehearsal,” he says. “This is a big play, about a lot of stuff, and the biggest challenge is to keep its integrity” while presenting the heightened nature of Christopher’s experience.
Ticket info: 366-9000 or floridastudiotheatre.org