Teen savant probes a dog’s murder in upcoming play

Meetinghouse Theatre Lab will present Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of English novelist Mark Haddon’s award-winning book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Bjorn Collins of Steuben plays an autistic teen who finds his neighbor’s dog Wellington impaled on a pitchfork and investigates the killing for which he is initially blamed.

WINTER HARBOR — Cynthia Thayer could be among the first community theater directors in the country to obtain the rights to the play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Her Meetinghouse Theater Lab will perform Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of English novelist Mark Haddon’s award-winning book about a boy’s journey of self-discovery, the weekend of May 18-20 at Hammond Hall.

“I read Mark Haddon’s book and like most people loved it,” Thayer says. “As soon as I heard it had been adapted into a play, about six years ago, I knew I wanted it for our theater company.”

When the play earned a record number of Olivier Awards in Britain, where it debuted, and the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play when it came to Broadway, she was even more determined to bring it to Winter Harbor.

“I tried getting the rights when it was still on Broadway,” Thayer says, “But, despite my description of our situation here at the Hammond Hall Grange, they were afraid we might compete with their Broadway production, which while flattering was, well, not likely.”

Nevertheless, she persisted, calling the agency a few times a year for several years.

“When I called again last fall, I was told they had just released the rights that very day,” Thayer says, “and I booked and paid for it immediately.”

When the scripts arrived, and she read it through for the first time, Thayer says she knew it was going to be the biggest challenge of her directorial career.

Haddon’s novel is written in pretty straightforward first-person narrative, as Christopher Boone, a teenager with behavioral issues resembling Asperger’s syndrome, embarks on an investigation into finding who was responsible for a neighborhood dog’s violent murder.

The play adaption, however, is told in dialogue (inner and outer)narration, letter reading, video projection and something resembling a miming Greek chorus, in that all the other actors when they are not representing specific characters seem to be extensions of Christopher’s psyche.

“For me directing is an organic thing,” Thayer says,” one idea flows from another. But I studied this script long and hard before it started to flow for me and I could see how these characters and situations would move physically and interact emotionally.”

She did have a big asset going for her — a cast of nine seasoned actors, and one talented newcomer who were up for the challenge, including the perfect actor to play the lead role of Christopher.

Thayer says she was certain that Bjorn Collins, the son of a former apprentice long ago at Darthia Farm, which she and her husband, Bill, have run for 35 years in Gouldsboro, would shine in the challenging role.

“I’ve known Bjorn from the day he was born — knitted his first Christmas stocking,” she says. But more to the point, she adds, he has been acting and participating in Meetinghouse Theatre workshops since he was 7 years old. Now at age 15, he is the same age as the play’s protagonist.

“When Cindy asked me to be in this play,” Bjorn recalls, “she just said ‘We’re doing a play with a role for a teenage boy, would you be interested?’ So I said sure. I hadn’t read the book so had no idea how big the part was. When I read the script, it was pretty intimidating.”

There was another, even bigger problem— spring break. Bjorn, who is a sophomore at Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, would be gone for the two-week school vacation. That meant that after one week of rehearsal he would be absent until two weeks before the play opened. He would essentially miss all the blocking and character formation. It seemed to be an insurmountable hurdle.

But Thayer says she talked it over with the young actor, who was, despite the time and work it would entail, eager to play the role. Bjorn convinced her he would learn his considerable lines while on vacation. He also had a solution for missing rehearsals. Much like the character he plays, Bjorn is something of a math whiz and takes college level math courses by Skype. He suggested that it might be possible to participate in some of the rehearsals this way.

“They set up the computer on a table, so I could see how the other characters moved from the audience’s perspective,” he says. “It was helpful and when I returned, I wasn’t totally lost.”

At a rehearsal last Wednesday night— Bjorn’s second since returning— he was not only off book, picking up his cues and saying his lines with only a couple of gaffes, he also moved with confidence and purpose through some very complicated blocking. He lived up to Thayer’s belief in him, as well, by making the quirky Christopher, both believable and oddly charismatic.

Having the young lead there in the flesh also has given the nine other actors — several of whom play multiple roles in the play — a boost of dramatic energy. Among the veteran actors who play everything from family, to neighbors, to strangers on a train and city streets, are local favorites. Bryan Lescord plays Christopher’s emotional drained and volatile dad; Brent Hutchins as a series of bombastic characters; Bonnie Hardy as the angry neighbor and other roles, Cathy Johnson, who manages a perfect British accent and unflappability as Siobhan the teacher everyone wishes they had, and Robin Vesey as Judy, Chris’s rather weak-willed mom who eventually finds some inner strength.

Someone new to watch is Marc Bellenoit, who adroitly handles several small roles, as do Austin Connors, Pam Burhoe and Crystal Bridges.

The dialogue and action still need tightening and defining, and the planned tech effects — of which, apparently, there are many — were not functioning during that run-through.

Still, had this been an actual performance, an audience would not have been disappointed. In addition to being moved and entertained they would have left the theater with a little more understanding about human nature, math, rats, black holes, trains, what it takes to become an astronaut and, perhaps, some empathy for those who might be a little different.

The Meetinghouse Theatre Lab, a program of Schoodic Arts for All, will present a full multimedia production of the “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” at 7 p.m. on Friday-Saturday, May 18-19, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 20, at Hammond Hall (422 Main St) in Winter Harbor. For more info, call 963-2569 and visit www.schoodicartsforall.org.

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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