“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” staged by Good Theater at the St. Lawrence Arts Center in Portland, is a thought-provoking, nerve-racking and, ultimately, quite moving story of a 15-year-old boy, coming of age amid the challenges wrought by his autism and his parents’ rocky split.

Adapted for the theater by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel of the same title – the Broadway production in New York was a major hit – the story depends on minimal stage design and great flexibility from a small cast, who at times must switch up their roles in the middle of a scene. They pull it off admirably, allowing director Brian P. Allen to populate the production with a broad set of characters, spanning London, the southwest English town of Swindon and a nail-biting train ride in between.

The heaviest lifting is accomplished by Griffin Carpenter as Christopher Boone. Carpenter’s portrayal of a young man on the more severe side of the autism spectrum is credible and all the more astonishing because of the deep and immediate sense that the audience gets to know him. It’s a feat that seems elusive to his own parents, played by Rob Cameron and Janet Gardner, who must weave their characters’ love for their son with their own fears, faults and moral failings.

Griffin Carpenter as Christopher Boone Photo courtesy of Good Theater

The tale is far-fetched, launching with the mystery of a dog’s murder, which Christopher is intent on solving, but it never feels out of reach. Both the book and the play depend on the variances between the mind of a person on the autism spectrum and that of more “neurotypical” people. For those who might not know someone with the condition, there’s vivid explanation in the play, as when Christopher details why he often finds people confusing, including frequent use of metaphors. Those are untruthful, he insists; he can only take their comparisons literally. Pigs are not a day; skeletons aren’t found in closets.

But Haddon and Stephens also trust that people will discern a shared humanity. Sometimes it’s comical: “Most murders are committed by someone who is known to the victim,” Christopher notes at one point. “In fact, you are most likely to be murdered by a member of your own family on Christmas Day.” At other times, profound: “I see everything. Most other people are lazy. They never look at everything. They do what is called glancing.”

It’s that ability of Christopher’s, even more than his genius at math, that brings both enjoyment and depth to this strange adventure. Carpenter’s physicality and timing, which recalls the best mimes, dancers and comics – without ever resorting to any lampooning or slapstick – accentuate that. In the end, Christopher reaches out directly to the audience, in a bit of meta-theater that on a Saturday, for a sold-out crowd, capped off the evening’s two hours with what felt like a genuine, and much appreciated, human connection.

Daphne Howland is a freelance writer based in Portland.

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