By Lynn Venhaus
Area theatergoers, you must see “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” now playing at the recently renamed Florissant Performing Arts Center, presented by Hawthorne Players through Nov. 13.
Opening night Friday was a testament to a production fulfilling its promise and meeting the moment, truly raising the bar for the entire St. Louis theater scene.
Knowing what Ken Clark is capable of as a director and scenic designer, and recognizing members of the cast and creative team, I purchased tickets to see it as a patron, not as a professional critic (do not review community/school theater) or an AFL judge (which I did for 10 years, but no longer in that role). My schedule does not permit me to get to everything I’d like to see, but lo and behold, Nov. 4 opened up.
Winner of five Tony Awards in 2015 and seven Olivier Awards in London, this immersive drama is one of the most unique theatrical experiences you will ever see — and also one of the most moving. Simon Stephens adapted the book by Mark Haddon, which takes us on a journey inside the brilliant mind of Christopher, who struggles to process everyday information, and has sensory perception issues.
Recent upgrades to the theater — the auditorium is part of the Florissant Civic Center — have enabled next-level technical work. The ‘Curious Incident’ creative team is the first to use the new projectors, and it adds so much.
However, technological bells and whistles are only as good as the creative minds behind the set, sound and lighting designs — bravo to lighting designer Eric Wennlund (his “The Spitfire Grill” was sublime, an AFL award winner), sound designer Jacob Baxley, who also composed the music score (!), and scenic and projection designer Ken Clark. Remarkable work.
Delivering the show’s heart, getting the ‘mind’ of the material right, is a tight ensemble. Dan Wolfe is exceptional as Christopher, and you can’t get up to leave immediately after the curtain call (standing O Friday), or you’ll miss his terrific coda. The youngster, who won a Best Performance Award from AFL last summer for “Annie,” displays how much effort he put into making Christopher as authentic as possible. It’s a tour de force.
Mike De Pope and Jennelle Gilreath Owens are strong as the parents, Natalee Damron is the sympathetic and firm teacher Siobhan, and a fine group of local actors perform multiple roles, including Jeff Kargus, Marian Holtz, Elle Harlow, Patrick Brueggen, Hunter Fredrick and Jessica Kelly.
The dialect work is superb — and consistent, and the coaches, with UK roots, are Robert Ashton and Gwynneth Rausch. Special mention to assistant director and choreographer Stefanie Kluba for staging the crisp movements that add to this show’s tapestry, and to ace veteran costume designer Jean Heckmann.
It’s indeed a triumph for all involved, and especially for the Hawthorne board of directors, for greenlighting such a challenging work.
Now in its 75th season, the group has been celebrating throughout the year. Take time to look at all the historical items in the lobby — and you can take a chance on a stunning quilt Jean Heckmann made including some of their shows. The quilt drawing is set for after their final show of the year, “Cowboy Christmas,” on Dec. 10.
This show’s level of difficulty is high, and anyone who has seen it before — whether Broadway, London or locally, is aware of its demands. In 2017, The Repertory Theatre of St Louis’s production blew me away. Several months later, it was honored as Outstanding Drama Production by the St. Louis Theater Circle, of which I am a founding member.
I remember talking to Steve Woolf, the late great artistic director of The Rep, who had seen the show in London , and felt he had ‘cracked the code’ on how to make it work at the Rep.
In a column after his untimely death in 2021, I wrote:
“During rehearsals for the stellar “All the Way” in 2015 (I was there to interview Brian Dykstra, playing LBJ, and Woolf, who was directing — https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article34672659.html), he told me about his experience seeing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” in London.
He had been gobsmacked. He didn’t think The Rep could do it — very technical show, intricate — but the wheels were turning. He was so excited about trying to bring it to The Rep. “I think I’ve found a way we can do it,” he said to me later. (more of that article, https://www.poplifestl.com/sightlines-remembering-steve-woolf/
In 2019, Actors Attic, a youth-focused theater group in Columbia, Ill., won several Theatre Mask Awards, presented by Arts for Life, for its ambitious production directed by MaryBeth Scherr Babcock. As far as I know, they’ve been the only local group to tackle it until now.
Yes, this is high praise. And yes, it’s that good. This column isn’t intended to review the show, only to urge people to fill seats of Flo PAC. It takes a village to put on a show as risky and rewarding as this, and they pulled it off in spectacular fashion, so I wanted to honor their efforts. All that work was worth it — but they deserve an audience.
GO SEE IT and support live theater. We need the arts and how it connects people more than we ever have.
(Fun Fact: As a news reporter and feature writer at the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, I told then-entertainment editor Frank Hunter that I had a theater background and would be available to review local theater if he needed a hand. One of my earliest assignments that I recall was “Carousel” at Hawthorne Players in 1984.)
‘Curious Incident’ is performed Nov 4, 5, 11 and 12 at 7:30 pm, with a matinee on Nov. 13 at 2 pm at the Florissant Performing Arts Center.
Tickets may be purchased online at https://florissantmo.thundertix.com/events/199113
For more information and sensitivity warnings, go to www.HawthornePlayers.com
Cover photo by Wolfe Creative Media Services
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.