By Helen Ganley, McLean High School
If given a choice between blissful ignorance and bitter awareness, which would you choose? In a maze of newfound love, dark red ink blots, and crisp white lab coats, Freedom High School’s powerful production of “Flowers for Algernon” emphasizes the dangers of changing who you are.
From its first release in 1959, “Flowers for Algernon” quickly progressed through literary history. Beginning as a short story, written by Daniel Keyes, “Flowers for Algernon” flourished and was transformed into a full-length novel. Soon after, in 1969, the novel was adapted into a play by David Rogers and continues to inspire authors, novelists, and playwrights today. The show follows Charlie Gordon, a mentally challenged man with an IQ of 68, as he undergoes an operation that rapidly increases his intelligence. As his IQ grows, his awareness does also, and Gordon becomes increasingly spiteful against everyone except his teacher and love interest, Ms. Kinnian, and a mouse who performs the lab tests with him, Algernon.
“Flowers for Algernon” is considered controversial today because of its use of the word “retarded.” Up until 2010, “mental retardation” was the medical term for someone with a low IQ and significant limitations in daily living skills. However, in recent years the word has become a derogatory term that is unacceptable to use in any social context, so Barack Obama changed the medical term to “intellectual disability.” Despite this change, many of those who perform Flowers for Algernon choose to keep the word in the show so as to preserve historical accuracy and to provide a social commentary on the use of the word.
Eric Wickham gave a riveting performance as Charlie Gordon. Going from being slightly hunched to standing up straight, as well as changing the tone and speed of his line delivery, Wickham’s transition between having an IQ of 68 to an IQ of 185 was engaging and tasteful. Wickham’s commitment to his role was astounding and provided an intense emotional arc that was beautiful to watch.
The three scientists’ interactions on stage brought undeniable tension into the room as they went through the different stages of Charlie’s treatment. From Professor Nemur’s aggressive tactics, to Dr. Strauss’s levelheaded therapy sessions, to Burt Seldon’s gentle way of collecting data, Josh Lee, Duncan MacLean, and Ethan Van Slyke’s ever-changing interactions keep the audience engaged throughout the show. In Charlie’s flashbacks, his family appears behind a translucent maze. Emily Sorber and Jack Doyle, playing Charlie’s Mother and Father, created intentional and complex characters that enhanced Charlie’s emotional transition.
To back up the maze of emotions onstage was a literal maze, cleverly and beautifully constructed by the set crew. Small details like the grain of the wood paneling and the rolling hand-welded hospital bed effectively transported the audience into the 1960s. The lights were effectively used to mirror Charlie’s emotions, turning the back wall into a blood red whenever Charlie was having a flashback. Costumes in group scenes were cohesive with both each other and the set, and Charlie’s change from wearing loose-fitting brightly colored sweaters to crisp darkly colored suits effectively emphasized his emotional transition.
So, although ignorance might be bliss, after realizing that your life might not be anything like you thought it was, awareness brings on a new future that you can shape, rather than having it shaped for you. Freedom High School’s performance of Flowers for Algernon displays the complications of mental disabilities, love, and science, all in one beautiful, emotional show.
[ This review of the Feb. 17 performance at Freedom High School is part of a series published in a partnership between Loudoun Now and The Cappies, a writing and awards program that trains high school theatre and journalism students to be expert writers, critical thinkers, and leaders.]