There’s a murderous ‘Incident’ at Harvester 56 Theater

Jan 24, 2019

BATAVIA — Matt Stevens, by his own assessment, is a happy, confident high school senior who doesn’t really let a lot bother him. That’s a great outlook, since high school can be one of the most stressful times in anyone’s life. But it also makes his latest role more challenging.

Stevens plays Christopher, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger syndrome, in the Batavia Player’sproduction of the acclaimed play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” How does someone not on the autism spectrum portray a character who is? For Stevens, it’s helps that he has worked with autistic people.

Stevens works at Noblehurst Farms, which has an agreement with the Western New York Developmental Disabilities State Office to bring members group homes to come work on the farm.

“I’ve seen a lot of people who are on the spectrum and how they behave and how they talk about the things that interest them and the things that make them uncomfortable,” said Stevens, 17, of Pavilion. “I just try to get into that mentality. If I had all of these things that made me uncomfortable, how would I handle it? That’s what I need to think about.”

The play, adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon, follow’s Christopher’s investigation into the murder of his neighbor’s dog. Along the way, he uncovers two massive secrets in his own family.

The play premiered in London in 2012 and won a record 12 Olivier Awards. The Broadway show also fared well, winning five Tony Awards, including Best Play, in 2015. It also has a local flavor to it, since the touring show opened two years ago in Rochester’s Auditorium Theatre.

The selection of “Curious Incident” — and Stevens in the lead role — began two years ago when Pat Burk, president and executive/artistic director for the Players, started looking at it. He had seen the play on Broadway years earlier and wanted to bring the show to Batavia.

“It is very special,” said Burk, who is also the president of the Batavia City School District’s board of education. “Having worked with so many people on the spectrum and then seeing this play from a book that really deals with people on the spectrum ... it’s kind of nice that the play was built with an autistic person as the main character, a young man who is really trying to succeed in life. To me, it’s almost like he’s the definition of a metaphor in the play.”

And choosing Stevens was easy, one that was made even before auditions were held.

“When I first read the play two years ago, before they offered it to us, I thought of people who I had worked with,” he said. “Matt came to mind immediately. His presence on stage is incredible, his characterization is amazing, and this person isn’t a glamour character. He has just done a tremendous job.”

The roles of Christopher’s parents, Ed and Judy, went to Players veterans Steve Coburn and Lucine Kauffman. Both are parents, but neither has had much experience in interacting with people on the autism spectrum.

“Ed is a father, who is trying to do the best he can,” Coburn said. “He makes some bad decisions, and he has some moments that he’s not proud of, but I believe deep down he genuinely cares about his son and is trying to do the best he can. I like the fact that it shows his humanity.”

“Judy has dreams of living a better life, and I think, like all of us, has emotional limitations,” Kauffman said. “She loves Christopher, but she doesn’t have the patience to deal with a child who has special needs. So she sees an easy way out.”

The show opens Friday at Harvester 56 Theater, 56 Harvester Ave. Performances are also scheduled for Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are available through DailyNewsTickets.com and at the box office.

“The main thing I hope the audience gets out of the production is that all people are different and that people really have a tremendous value,” Burk said. “To see a performance in a play that doesn’t highlight the spectrum but the brilliance of the person and their abilities as well as entertaining is great.”

By Matt Krueger, Batavia Daily News