Flowers for Algernon @ Deaf West Theatre

Is there anybody who hasn’t read Daniel Keyes’ 1959 Hugo Award-winning short story Flowers for Algernon the tale of Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged man who is chosen to be the recipient of intelligence-enhancing surgery? The short story was so successful that in 1966 Keyes extended it into a novel which was brought out in 1966. But prior to that in 1961 there was The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, a television adaptation of the short story presented on CBS starring Cliff Robertson who would seven years later win the Academy Award for repeating the role in the film version Charly. There was even a musical in 1979 starring Michael Crawford as Charlie with book and lyrics by David Rogers and music by Charles Strouse who also did “Bye Bye, Birdie” and the film score for Bonnie and Clyde.

So you see we are talking fertile ground for adaptation.

Deaf West Theatre has now undertaken a staging in their unique style.

Generally, their productions use the convention of “shadow players” to either sign for the deaf audiences or speak for the hearing. Playing Charlie (Daniel N. Durant) as deaf is both logical and contributes to the challenges he must face. Matthew McCray employs a younger Charlie-shadow (Sean Eaton) and a mature Charlie-shadow (Josh Breslow) to good effect as not only translators for the audience but visual assessments of Charlie’s status before and after his radical surgery.

A stylish set by Sarah Krainin allows the cast more dexterity than they can otherwise avail themselves of as far as their pacing goes, but this will most likely improve further into the run.

Unfortunately, the foremost impediment for the production is the adaptation itself. The play takes for its source Daniel Keyes’ 1966 novelization. The novel supplies a fuller back story for Charlie in recounting his childhood, and the obsession that emerges after his operation to reconnect with his mother. When he succeeds in this she is discovered to be afflicted by a dementia that perhaps fueled her vehemence in insisting Charlie be placed in a “home”.

Not having read the novel version of Flowers for Algernon, I can’t judge how well these scenes function in book form; in the staging, however, they serve little purpose except to bloat the evening. As Charlie’s retardation was not caused by his mother, nor does she have a hand in triggering his intellectual regression, the entire storyline is gratuitous.

Hillary Baack struggles valiantly in the role of Alice, Charlie’s teacher turned love interest, but she cannot overcome a lack of “intent” fostered upon her by the script. She loves Charley, she doesn’t, she wants to be with him, she has to get away from him, she pursues him, she forsakes him. A weak and unfocused objective in the writing results in a character that seemingly is devoid of commitment. This is a flaw in any dramatic framework. Regrettably, in this particular play, that fault is amplified due to the fact that the character of Alice provides the emotional core for both the audience and Charlie.

The notion of having our intellect augmented by a surgical procedure is probably something most of us have never pondered, but the loss of love and the hope of being loved, is something that can and should wrench the heart from an audience.

On some level one cannot help but to think that Charlie Gordon’s “miracle surgery” is being treated as an allegory for the Cochlear implant, a rather bulky array of electrodes, computerized speech processor and external headpiece that is the first functional sensory prosthetic.

The introduction of the Cochlear implant in the mid 80’s was widely condemned by a large segment of the deaf community, who argue that deafhood should be viewed as an “exceptionality” of the human experience rather than as a “disability, and who considered their deafness as a cultural identity.

They question society’s attitude that treated a deaf child as something “broken”.

They defiantly asked, “What is normal?”

It is the same question the play asks.


Flowers for Algernon

Deaf West Theatre @ the Whitefire Theatre
13500 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA 91423
(818) 762-2998

Performances: Sept. 28 through Nov. 3
Thursdays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 10*, 17*, 24*, 31*
Fridays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 11, 18, 25; Nov. 1
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Oct. 12, 19, 26; Nov. 2
Sundays at 2 p.m: Oct. 13, 20, 27; Nov. 3
*ASL Nights every Thursday in Oct.: arrive at 7:30 pm for a ½ hour ASL workshop that teaches signs used in the play.

General admission: $30
Previews: $20
Students with ID: $20 “back to school” special through Oct. 13 only
Sunday, Oct 13 at 2 p.m.: Pay-what you-can