It was only after Knox Blakely had auditioned for the lead role in Theatre Tulsa’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” that he realized he had placed himself squarely on the horns of a dilemma.
The production schedule for this drama, adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel, was such that the show’s dress rehearsal would take place the same day and time as the graduation ceremonies for Booker T. Washington High School’s Class of 2019, of which Blakely is a member.
“If it was important to him to take part in the graduation ceremonies,” said Knox’s father, David Blakely, “then he could not be in the play. And that would mean I wouldn’t be able to be there to see him graduate.”
That’s because David Blakely is the director of “The Curious Incident ...,” which opened its two-weekend run Friday at the Tulsa PAC.
“To be honest, it wasn’t that difficult of a decision,” Knox Blakely said. “Theater has been more a part of my life than school has been. Being involved in theater has really shaped who I am as a person, and I decided that missing graduation was worth being able to do this role.
“So while my classmates will be crossing one stage, I’ll be working on a completely different stage,” he said.
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has at its center a teenager named Christopher, whose severe Asperger’s makes it difficult for him to interpret the world around him. He is more comfortable dealing with mathematical problems than comprehending the often metaphorical language people unthinkingly use.
In addition to Knox Blakely, the production features Karlena Riggs as his teacher, Siobhan; Jeff Huston as Ed, Christopher’s father; and Kristin Robert as Judy, his mother.
“Christopher takes everything literally,” Knox said. “He’s always on the brink of over-stimulation, yet he manages to be what’s called ‘highly functioning.’ He has a kind of emotional maturity, even if he doesn’t have the emotional resources to deal with things that most people don’t think about.
“He doesn’t understand, for example, why people are so concerned with their appearance because to him that doesn’t matter,” he said. “To Christopher, what is important about people is what’s inside. And when that belief gets challenged, it completely undoes his carefully constructed world.”
David Blakely said casting his son in such a demanding role was not done lightly.
“We had a lot of very good people who auditioned for the part,” he said. “And this role is a real uphill climb. The character is on stage the entire play, so he truly has to carry the show, while being sympathetic to portraying someone with these limits in an honest and believable way.
“If I didn’t think Knox would be able to do those things, I wouldn’t have cast him,” David Blakely said. “Also, I wanted to cast someone close to the character’s actual age. I’ve seen shows where people in their 20s and 30s have been cast as teenagers, but when a character playing a parent comes on stage who looks to be about the age as the ‘teenagers,’ it just looks wrong.”
Knox Blakely said he did a great deal of research in preparation for the role.
“I do speech and debate, and a lot of times, I’ve been in competitions where people will do as a dramatic monologue what I call ‘Oscar bait’ — where they take on the persona of someone with some sort of difficulty,” he said. “They usually get pretty far because they know the material is going to yank tears out of people.
“But it always seemed to me as calculated,” Knox said. “If something isn’t honest, that’s what makes it offensive. And that was the last thing I wanted to do with Christopher.”
The story of “The Curious Incident ...” is set in motion when Christopher finds the body of his neighbor’s dog. First, he’s accused of killing the animal, but when he’s let go, decides to solve this “case of murder” — an investigation that forces Christopher to confront some harsh realities that require him to grow, to strike out on his own, to confront many of his fears head on.
Christopher’s way of thinking and speaking is often blunt and logical, to the point that the language he uses “is almost like a dialect,” Knox said. “And when you finally get inside that state of mind, you realize that he’s this incredibly complex, even emotional, character. It really puts your own sense of privilege into perspective.”
David Blakely said he deliberately avoided checking out other productions of the play as he prepared for this show.
“I know that other productions have used a lot of projections to create this sensation of the way Christopher’s mind works,” he said. “I wanted us to grow this production naturally, to make it very much about the relationships between Christopher and the other characters.
“We tried to make it as close to true to life as you can with a script that jumps back and forth in time and space,” David said, laughing.
While David and Knox have long been involved in local theater — David teaches theater at Rogers State University and has served as Heller Theatre Company’s playwright in residence for the past two seasons, while Knox has worked as an actor and writer with Clark Youth Theater and Heller — this is the first time father and son have worked together on a major project.
“For me,” Knox said, “it just seems like the perfect thing — to work together with my father on one big project before I head off for college.”