Note: this article was also published on Neon Tommy.
Flowers for Algernon, written by David Rogers (based on the book by Daniel Keyes); directed by Matthew McCray. Produced by Deaf West Theatre. (Seen September 28, 2013.
The production of Flowers for Algernon at Deaf West Theatre is all about mazes. “The path I choose through the maze is what makes me who I am,” the character of Charlie (played by Daniel N. Durant and Josh Breslow) says at one point. And as with a mouse in a science experiment, Charlie takes a while before learning the correct path to who he is.
The story of Flowers for Algernon, based on the novel by Daniel Keyes, is about Charlie Gordon, a man who would be classified as special needs. He is offered the chance to become a test subject for a new procedure that promises to increase intelligence. Through the plot, the audience gets a glimpse at both the best and worst of humanity as those around him react to the change, and as he himself realizes the path he is on.
The Deaf West Theatre production makes the distinct choice to have Charlie deaf as well. “In our production,” reads a note from the artistic director DJ Kurs in the program, “the experience of deafness and the experience of being developmentally disabled become one.” Director Matthew McCray takes this even further: the use of combining interpreters for the deaf and actors—sometimes simultaneously, by having the actors act as interpreters for themselves and one another—is an idea of sheer genius, blending together the needs of the audience with the need to tell the story effectively.
But it doesn’t stop there: the character of Charlie is given two interpreters. One (Sean Eaton) is young and childlike in his words, while the other (Breslow) is an adult and mature. The use of these two to show Charlie’s growth—not only in intelligence, but in emotional capacities as well—tugs at the heartstrings, as it is a constant visual reminder of where Charlie has been, and where he might be headed.
The acting is flawless. To single out one actor among the cast of twelve would be difficult. Even in moments when they are inevitably upstaged by Algernon (played by Cherry Snowdrop, a library mouse), the actors command the space they are in and are constantly in the moment. A particularly strong moment happens when Charlie is smart enough to realize who he had been and that he might actually be happier in his ignorance, and is portrayed with understated fierceness by both Durant and Breslow.
Sarah Krainin’s elegantly simple scenic design of rotating panels with its mazelike features keep the actors framed in a multitude of locations while still keeping the action contained. Adam Flemming’s use of multimedia for parts of the story doesn’t distract, but actually enhances what’s being seen.
Good theatre is rare to find, and exceptional theatre is even rarer. While the show’s darker moments are emotionally difficult to watch, it is theatre at it’s finest. It was stunning and heart-wrenching and beautiful. Like a maze, “Flowers for Algernon” is full of challenges and struggles. Deaf West Theatre’s production is worth the journey.
Deaf West’s production of Flowers for Algernon is playing through November 3 at Whitefire Theatre (13500 Ventura Blvd, Sherman Oaks). Tickets are $30. For more information, visit DeafWest.org.