Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
November 1, 2013
It’s enough to make a grown man cry.
Every time my husband hears the title, “Flowers for Algernon,” he tears up. The 1959 Hugo Award-winning Daniel Keyes short story, which became a novel, a film, a play and a musical, is a sci-fi cautionary tale that, with a few technological tweaks, still feels like a harrowing, almost-plausible human experiment.
Algernon is the lab mouse who gained significantly in intelligence after a new brain surgery technique. Searching for a human subject on whom to test the potentially ground-breaking discovery, the scientists find their man in Charlie Gordon, a good-natured, intellectually-challenged 32 year-old, working a menial job. Once he signs up, Charlie closely identifies with Algernon, who at first, becomes highly skilled at going through his maze, and then, tragically, begins to deteriorate. Charlie, who has moved far beyond the ridicule and bullying of his former life, becomes a genius, far exceeding the intelligence of the researchers who employ him to document his experience, and his teacher, who becomes his first love.
Watching Algernon decline, Charlie desperately sees the handwriting on his own maze wall.
L.A.’s award-winning Deaf West Theatre raises the stakes of this chilling tale even more. Their Charlie is deaf, and his story strongly resonates with the long-held ‘difference vs. disability’ debate in the deaf community, and the centuries of hearing professionals trying to fix, cure or re-fashion deaf people in their own image.
This subtly revised version, based on the 1969 stage adaptation by David Rogers, uses clever direction, double-cast actors and projections to present the details bilingually, in English and American Sign Language. Downsizing from the original 27 actors and 57 scenes, director Matthew McCray and his designers do it all with a cast of 12, plus a live mouse, using mobile modular panels as scrims, projection screens and a symbolic maze. The dramatic techniques and the conceptual resonances are powerful, though the ensemble itself is variable in its dramatic and signing skill. It’s extremely effective to have the hearing and deaf sides of the main character interact; less so to have non-signing hearing actors feebly attempt to sign.
But commanding the central focus of the production is the charismatic deaf actor Daniel Durant, in a heartbreaking performance as Charlie. His role is excellently, seamlessly voiced by Sean Eaton as young Charlie and Josh Breslow in his adult incarnation. Together, without cliché, stereotype or caricature, they marvelously capture Charlie’s gut-wrenching journey from childlike un-self-consciousness to sharp-witted bravado to awkward, tentative lover to despairing fatalist, haunted by his repressed past and his terrifying future.
Perhaps ignorance is bliss. Maybe recalling and unearthing painful memories only heightens the pain. Or, to give it more of a storybook spin, be careful what you wish for.
The Deaf West production of “Flowers for Algernon” has been extended through November 17, at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, near L.A.
©2013 PAT LAUNER