Flowers for Algernon has had many incarnations since it was first published as a short story in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: a novel, a telecast, a film (which won an Oscar for actor Cliff Robertson) and a Broadway musical. At its heart, the story is a moving account of an intellectually disabled man who undergoes experimental surgery to increase his IQ to genius level.
In its current incarnation as a Deaf West Theatre production, the story retains its poignancy, but loses some of its emotional punch to cluttered and sometimes muddled staging that distracts from the heartbreaking narrative.
The play follows Charlie Gordon (Daniel Durant), who is the willing subject of the experimental surgery and whose life is interwoven with Algernon, a mouse whose intelligence has increased threefold by the same procedure. As Charlie’s intelligence increases, he deals with issues and questions that are new to him – a blossoming romance for his former teacher, his childhood and how his parents dealt with his disability, the rush that accompanies genius, and the prospect of a decline back to his pre-op self.
Deaf West’s signed-and-voiced adaptation is from the 1969 play by David Rogers. And that’s likely where some of the problems begin. The script calls for 27 actors and it has 57 scenes. Although the cast has been pared down to 12 for this production – with seven hearing and five deaf actors – the play presents formidable challenges with so many scene changes and so many bodies on the small Whitefire Theatre stage. Add to that the signing/hearing component, and the problems become even more pronounced.
Director Matt McCray has worked with scenic designer Sarah Krainin to come up with a modular transformative set. But the frequent movement of these module-screens and other set pieces is not only distracting but also adds complications for the actors who move them. Also puzzling are the choices used with on-screen projections: Sometimes “translations” appear on the screen but at other times they are voiced or signed by actors; one of the actors appears only on screen and never in person. In addition, key dramatic scenes are played out behind a scrim (to show it happened in the past) when a much more powerful staging would have had the action front and center.
The show is also hamstrung by a crowded stage. Durant as Charlie is shadowed by speaking actors Sean Eaton (child Charlie) and/or Josh Breslow (adult Charlie) in almost every scene. Advisedly, there are many occasions when the speaking versions of Charlie should have been either offstage or in the background. Adding to the mess onstage are added touches such as the occasional appearance of “Three Blind Mice.”
All of this confusion possibly contributed to an opening night in which many of the actors gave weak performances. Perhaps preoccupied by numerous and confusing set changes, many of the cast members seemed far from settled in their roles.
Nevertheless, the production is ultimately successful largely because of the wonderful performance of Durant as Charlie. His transformation from intellectually challenged to genius is credible and heartbreaking. And for the deaf audience members, Durant’s performance is enhanced because Charlie learns to celebrate his deaf identify and becomes a master of American Sign Language, what is called a “super-signer.”
The eerie science fiction element of the play is very nicely underlined with an effective sound design by Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski.
The play is at its best in the uncluttered moments, such as the closing image of Charlie, in a spotlight, stage bare, kneeling next to the maze where Algernon had transformed into a super-smart mouse.
Perhaps Thoreau said it best: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, Simplify.”
photos by Ed Krieger
Flowers for Algernon
Deaf West Theatre at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks
scheduled to end on November 3, 2013
for tickets, call (818) 762-2998 (voice) or visit Deaf West