It can’t be unseen.
A dead dog impaled with a garden fork lies at the lip of the makeshift stage at Yellow Tree Theatre. That the pooch is made of cloth does not make the image any less violent or disturbing, especially for Christopher Boone, a socially ill-at-ease 15-year-old math savant on the autism spectrum. He is so upset by the dead dog that he slaps a policeman who comes to investigate it.
Christopher (Zach Schnitzer), who lives with a father who has told him that his mother is dead, goes on a risky quest to find the canine’s killer in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” Simon Stephens’ gut-punching drama that opened Saturday at Yellow Tree’s storefront theater in Osseo.
Adapted from Mark Haddon’s 2003 debut novel, the England-set play is staged with emotional potency by Ellen Fenster. And it achieves its power despite the distraction of strange, hodgepodge British accents that waxed and waned on opening night.
“Curious Incident” bowed in London in 2012, then opened on Broadway three years later, where it won five Tonys, including best play. That production, which toured to the Orpheum in 2016, had clever stagecraft and design aided by some high-tech wizardry.
Things are pretty low-tech at Yellow Tree, where Arina Slobodianik’s compact, abstracted scenic design consists of doors and a blanched wall that doubles for projections. The show uses Peter Morrow’s urban soundscape and the actors’ bodies to conjure the metropolitan mayhem that Christopher must navigate as he sets out on a quest that’s not really about the dog so much as about proving to himself that he can do anything.
What Fenster and her cast lack in budget they make up for with honesty and theatrical invention. Schnitzer invests Christopher not just with awkward mannerisms but also with a forthrightness. His character has social deficits, yes, but also tenacity and courage.
It helps that he is surrounded by a community that helps to guide and sometimes buffet him, including Laura Esping as his teacher and narrator, Siobhan. Esping is a font of compassion and understanding. Alexcia Thompson plays multiple roles, including a gardening neighbor that she invests with concern, if not warmth.
Stacia Rice and Corey Mills play Judy and Ed, Christopher’s mother and father. These characters are deeply flawed, but their harsh edges soften some around Christopher, who has a moderating effect on all whom he meets.
Other cast members include Matthew Lolar, Melinda Kordich, Peter Simmons and Dylan Ward, all very fine performers who play a battery of transit passengers, police officers, a teacher and sundry people interacting with Christopher, who dreams of the stars.
They help to sketch his world in a poignant production that enlarges ours.