A new show at the Winchester Little Theater brought some changes to the stage this fall with high-tech storytelling choices.
Starring 17-year-old high school student Josh Horn as Christopher, “Strange Incident of the Dog in the Night” is “an incredibly demanding show,” director Sally Anderson said.
Based on the award-winning novel by Mark Haddon, Simon Stephens’ story follows 15-year-old Christopher Boone, a mathematical genius who uses prime numbers to help him find order in a chaotic world. After discovering that his neighbor’s dog has been murdered, he decides to investigate the death even though his father forbids it.
“The actor is a godsend,” Anderson said.
Josh, who recently starred in WLT’s two summer children’s theater productions, said it was one of his first adult theater productions.
In addition to starring with an otherwise all-adult cast, he plays a main character struggling with an unclassified type of autism.
“I just try to identify with him as much as possible,” said Josh, who attends James Wood High School.
Playing on the patterns Christopher uses to make sense of the mess in his life, the set design uses a grid of lights throughout the show to help tell the story.
“There’s a tremendous amount of suspension of disbelief, and I love that,” Anderson said.
For example, instead of depicting the dead dog with a prop, it instead illustrates the murder with a strip outline and a garden fork perpendicular to the stage grid.
“The suspension of disbelief is what I think theater is,” Anderson said.
This is especially useful for a black box theater like WLT, which has seats set up around three-quarters of the stage instead of a more standard auditorium seating configuration in front of the stage.
“In this theater, you don’t observe,” she says. “You become part of what is happening.”
Another departure from typical WLT shows is that all the actors are on stage for the entire two-act play.
As Christopher narrates his in-game play, each of the other characters inhabit their respective places, pulling props from storage stools as they describe various voices in his life and imagination.
Trish Epperson plays Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher who helps him find ways to navigate his world and adapt to society.
Part teacher, part companion, Epperson said, “She’s also his inner voice and outward confidence.”
Rhonda Markland plays Christopher’s mother, Judy, and Ron Copeland plays his father, Ed.
Representing additional voices throughout the story are Rachel Short, Christopher Lee Short, Matt Herter, Bill Taylor, Rebecca Balcom and Amy Thomas.
Due to the play’s story-within-a-story format, it features several takeaways that Anderson said audiences might notice differently on multiple viewings.
It’s a show you can see multiple times, she says, since each of the characters has a different background. It is also suitable for all ages, she said.
Although the play is new to WLT, she pointed out that Shenandoah University will present the show from November 17-20. Because of the many ways the play can be performed and crafted and the fact that SU will be holding its performances at its Ohrstrom-Bryant Theater, she said it’s possible the school could opt for an entirely different set design, such as the production highly choreographed show she saw at the Kennedy Center.
“It’s a show full of choices,” Anderson said.
After reading the book and seeing DC’s performance, Anderson said she knew “Winchester Little Theater could do it if we were brave with how the whole grid works.”
The piece’s technology “was my choice,” she says, and it’s “essential” to tell the story on a small stage.
Grid lines on the floor light up in different colors throughout the show, and a wall-mounted TV screen enhances Christopher’s story through creative visuals. The show also uses its newly improved sound design to portray plot deviations like a train arriving at a station.
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anderson said, “We went for every grant we could get.”
Thanks to a recently obtained grant, they have updated their sound design and plan to redo their LED lights.
“Our technological capabilities have just transformed what we are able to do,” she said.
Anderson also touted the skills of sound designer Jamie Mereness, lighting designer Heather Fredericks, and tech genius in both lighting and sound, high school student Joey Besant.
“We went from capable to professional [level theater] with what we have,” Anderson said.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” will run September 9-24 at the Winchester Little Theater, 315 W. Boscawen St.
Performances are at 8 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Thursday and at 2 p.m. on Sunday and September 17.
Tickets are $21 for adults, $19 for seniors 62 and older, and $14 for K-12 and college students. The ticket office is open from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday.
Contact the theater at 540-662-3331 or winchesterlittletheatre.org.