What if ignorance really is bliss? The heart-warming, inspiring tale of Charlie Gordon comes to life at The Elden Street Players production of Flowers for Algernon. Directed by Gloria DuGan, this challenging tale presents audiences with Charlie Gordon, a thirty year-old man with the mindset of a young boy. A radical scientific breakthrough allows him to undergo an operation that enables his intelligence to grow exponentially. But growing intellectually brings emotional changes and pain beyond what Charlie could ever imagine and when he discovers his state of intelligence may not be permanent it becomes a true challenge for him. This sensational story is a heart-stopping production that won’t leave a dry eye in the house.
The play is overshadowed by strong themes and symbology in the text as well as subtly explored in the scenic art. Set Designer Michael Schlabach creates a massive maze, similar to the one that Algernon must run through, and mounts it as the centerpiece of the set. This maze represents not only the struggles that both Algernon and Charlie face, but holds a slightly deeper reflective meaning to the work as a whole. Schlabach has designed the maze with no entrances or exits and it is disconnected from itself; a reflection of Charlie’s life, how he is always struggling with the internal disconnect of his two selves. This symbolic genius is a touching thought to further provoke the audience’s thought responses in regards to Charlie’s existence throughout the show.
Lighting Designer Franklin C. Coleman creates each moment of this show with a series of subtle cues that fall to blackout at just the right moment; highlighting each scene as an individual breath in Charlie’s life. This effect lets the audience absorb each moment as it happens with a flash of a pause in-between, enabling each moment to begin and end naturally. Coupled with Sound Designer Stan Harris, Coleman achieves a good many moments of fading into thought-provoking solitude. Harris overlays many of Charlie’s memories with subtle sounds from his past, and the less subtle and eerily haunting recording of little girls singing “Three Blind Mice.” This song not only serves to create a disturbing invitation to Charlie’s disjointed past but acts as another symbolic reflection to the characters in the show.
The professors of the study that Charlie undergoes are very much like the three blind mice mentioned in the daunting children’s song that is repeated throughout the performance. This symbolic reflection shows how these men of science are blinded by their ambitions to achieve greatness, often forgetting that Charlie is still a human being. Dr. Jay Strauss (Dell Pendergrast) and Professor Harold Nemur (Stuart Fischer) are the two that are most detached. Pendergrast and Nemur are cold and scientific, lost in their world of discovery and their over-inflated egos and all the accolades that come with it. When we see them interact with Charlie they respond to him as they would a mouse or other inanimate test subject, cold and inhuman.
Burt Seldon (Steve Custer) is the only one of these three blinded scientists to melt into moments of earth-shattering humanity. As cold and calculating as the rest of these men driven by their scientific egos, Custer has a pivotal moment late in Act II where he falls into a hysterical emotional meltdown as he finally begins to identify with Charlie, realizing that just like himself Charlie is a man, an actual human being. It is heart-breaking to watch Custer’s agony as he comes to this conclusion, the grief and remorse of his previous actions toward Charlie real and apparent on his face.
Director Gloria DuGan manages to exact frightening memories from Charlie’s past onto the stage with her use of mimed scenes and masks. The masks are a brilliant representation of Charlie’s inability to recall his parents’ faces. They dehumanize his mother and father and make those recalled memories that much more nightmarish. During those moments with Mother (Susan D. Garvey) and Father (Ian Mark Brown) the lighting is darker, the scene is often reenacted silently and the movements are sharp and jagged, like grotesque caricatures rather than actual people. And these scenes are where we are first introduced to young Charlie.
Little Charlie (Sam Fonss) and Teen Charlie (Stuart Orloff) are constantly appearing as part of adult Charlie’s struggle to keep his intellectual self present. Fonss and Orloff give sensational performances, mimicking the gestures, posture, and movements of Matt Baughman (playing Charlie Gordon) with a flawless recitation. These two young performers are sensational as they lose themselves in the internalized world that is Charlie’s mind; Fonss with his pinwheel, Orloff with the gesturing of his hands; both creating a very realistic portrayal of what Charlie was like as youth.
From the moment Matt Baughman steps on the stage he has embodied the character of Charlie Gordon. Baughman takes a deep step inside the psychosis of the character, adjusting his physicality to that of a developmentally disabled character. His posture is slumped, his clutches his hands together, often leaves his jaw slack and has several nervous ticks that manifest themselves consistently throughout the show. It is both humbling and heart-wrenching to watch Baughman struggle in his desperation to want to be smart because he creates such a believable child-like naiveté in this character.
The moments that Baughman spends alone in his bed, attempting to journal and record his progress are captivating and raw. Each expression falls from eyes across his lips as he struggles to vocalize and express his concerns. And the stunning transformation that Baughman undergoes as Charlie begins to improve is nothing short of sensational. It is a well-paced transformation; first his speech begins to improve, slowly his posture straightens, his ticks disappear and by the end of Act I there is a highly functioning super-smart bordering on genius adult standing present on stage.
Watching the way Baughman’s emotional responses change are a true delight. His interactions with Alice Kinnian (Lauren Palmer Kiesling) show immense growth, as do the touching scenes with Mrs. Donner (Cecily Michelle) the sweet old lady who gave him his first job, and Mrs. Mooney (Rebecca Lenehan) the batty old Irish woman who gives him his first apartment. Baughman’s phenomenal performance brings tears to your eyes as he slowly spirals downward from an intellectual and emotional peak back into the darkness, and is well deserving of a standing ovation.
Flowers for Algernon is loaded with sensational performances by Matt Baughman and his fellow cast members, and should not be missed!
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.