Theatre Review: ‘Flowers for Algernon’ at Elden Street Players

Professor Harold Nemur (Stuart Fischer), Matt Baughman (Charlie Gordon), Dr. Jay Strauss (Dell Pendergrast), and Burt Seldon (Steve Custer). Photo by Traci J. Brooks Photography.

Flowers for Algernon is playing for one more weekend at the Elden Street Players.  It’s a touching story and a production well worth seeing.  The play is based on Daniel Keyes’ short story, which was also made into the 1968 movie, Charlie, starring Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom.

I’ve seen/read all three and I’ve liked them all.  Briefly, a team of scientists is working on an operation that will increase intellect dramatically.  Their idea is to use it on very low IQ individuals so they can become contributing members of society and live happier, more fulfilling lives.  It’s worked really well on a mouse, Algernon, and now they want to try it on a human being.  Because it’s a story, we can ignore the fact that this is not even close to the way things actually work in our world, and focus instead on the larger issues of the play.  Which are: 1) would low IQ people prefer to have high IQs, 2) is it ethical to play with someone’s life like this, and undoubtedly many more that I missed.

Matt Baughman (Charlie Gordon). Photo by Traci J. Brooks Photography.

Charlie Gordon is the first human subject, recommended by his adult night school class teacher, Miss Alice Kinnian.  She thinks he’s perfect because he is so determined to be smart, he is even tempered, and conveniently has no family to get in the way.  Well, the operation works and Charlie quickly begins to rack up the IQ points.  But all is not well, due to 1) and 2) above.  And because, as we come to find out, the change is not permanent.  When Charlie begins to revert to his old self, he is no longer happy in that life because now he understands he was being make fun of and because he knows what it’s like on the other side of the fence.  He cannot tolerate his world now, so he runs off to be alone, and his last request is that someone put flowers on Algernon’s grave.

Arguably the most difficult role to play is Charlie, not because he has to go from very slow to hyper-genius, but because he has to do it gradually.  Matt Baughman does a truly impressive job of this.  Another very impressive actor is Steve Custer in the role of Dr. Bert Seldon, who is part of the team of doctors.  He was completely real from his first appearance.  Lauren Palmer Kiesling did a good turn as Alice Kinnian, the teacher, on whom Charlie has a crush which blossoms into full-blown attraction/lust as Charlie’s IQ blossoms.  Susan D. Garvey and Ian Mark Brown as Charlie’s parents were also very good, as were the various kids used to depict Charlie and his sister Norma (Cecily Rood) in flashbacks.  I was particularly impressed with how accurately the young boys, Sam Fonss and Stuart Orloff, imitated Charlie’s physical mannerisms.  About those mannerisms…

The story is well worth seeing and this production by the Elden Street Players is a great way to do it.

First, I have to say the production was very well staged.  Director Gloria DuGan had to put multiple playing areas in a small space and she did it very well.  She also did an excellent job of establishing the ambiance of the late 60s/early 70s.  Credit for all this must be shared with set, costume, and lighting designers Michael Schlabach, Judy Whelihan, and Franklin C. Coleman, respectively.

But for all its strong points, the production had some problems.  It dragged.  A lot.  Seriously.  And my companion and I both had trouble with the depiction of a low IQ man.  This Charlie appeared to have Downs Syndrome or be autistic (which, by the way, would mean he was highly intelligent).  While mental impairments are very often accompanied by physical ones, that is not always the case.  Ms. DuGan had Charlie sitting there with a wide open, idiot grin on his face (while he was talking) through much of the earlier scenes, he was constantly swiping at this nose, and his hands were spasmed into claws that often moved of their own accord.

Matt Baughman (Charlie Gordon) and Alice Kinnian (Lauren Palmer Kiesling). Photo by Traci J. Brooks Photography.

And why does low intellect mean poor speech?  Why can’t he pronounce his Rs?  That’s fine motor coordination, not intellect.  There is no mention of any kind of physical impairment in the story, the movie, or the play; he just isn’t very smart.  Mr. Baughman handled all these things very well, but I think if I worked with Special Ed kids and adults, I’d be very offended.  In fact, I checked with a very experienced Special Ed teacher and she was.  Also, in real life I do not find this to be true, but to watch all of this on stage, unremittingly, for what seemed like a good hour, was more annoying than you might think.  And when Charlie had progressed to an IQ of 100, he still had some of those mannerisms.  One hundred is dead average.  Charlie would have appeared perfectly normal.

Still, it’s a timeless story, and one you don’t see that often anymore.  The story is well worth seeing and this production by the Elden Street Players is a great way to do it.  You can see well, too, from any seat because the seating is arranged like it is in Broadway balconies, meaning it is very steep (if you’re afraid of heights, you’ll want to get there early to grab a ground level seat) so you can see over the heads of those in front of you.  But the play is only there for one more weekend, so put it on your calendar now.  Leave some extra time to get there, though.  The theater is not that easy to find.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

Flowers For Algernon plays through June 30, 2012 at The Elden Street Players, at The Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Drive, in Herndon, VA. For tickets, call 703-481-5930, or purchase them online.

About Susan Scher

Susan has been in front of audiences in one way or another most of her life. She has been performing on stage and studying acting since her early teens, going on to earn a BA in Theater from William and Mary. She studied voice-over and acting with some of L.A.’s best and has worked as a voice in several markets across the country. As a voice and on-camera talent, she has worked for such clients as AT&T, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Buick, and the Bill and Melissa Gates Foundation. She appeared as Anne in the world premiere of Blue Mermaid at Baltimore’s Fells Point Corner Theater. A few other favorite stage roles include Rowena in "Biloxi Blues," Regan in "King Lear," Petra in "A Little Night Music," Hallie in "Emily," and Mother in "Ragtime." Susan has sung in many and varied venues, including Anvanti, La Dolce Vita, and Asti, where she also performed her one-woman show, "Puccini…and All That Jazz." Locally, she has been seen at Germano’s cabaret doing her salute to Rosemary Clooney. She recently got a Master’s in Voice from New York University. She now teaches acting and singing to children at Starz2Be in downtown Baltimore. Susan also has an Internet radio talk show called In Other Words…( You can listen live at 10am Wednesday mornings (nothing on the site tells you that until 10am Wednesday morning; it’s not a perfect system) and podcasts are always available on the site.