Oakton High School
As the age-old proverb goes, "Where ignorance is bliss, /'Tis folly to be wise." But for Charlie Gordon, a man with an IQ of 68 and a third-grade reading level, his desire to be wise overtakes all. A medical operation that raises his IQ to genius levels brings him growth, achievement, and pain in Freedom High School's moving production of Flowers for Algernon.
Conceived as a short story by Daniel Keyes in a 1959 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Flowers for Algernon was then adapted into an award-winning novel, numerous television and film versions, and a 1969 play by David Rogers. The story, told through a series of progress reports by Charlie, follows his intellectual and emotional journey from intellectually disabled to genius and back again alongside the titular Algernon, the lab mouse who underwent the same surgery as Charlie did to artificially improve his intelligence.
Eric Wickham was transformative as Charlie Gordon. In a demanding role for anyone, Wickham not only met but surpassed the challenges of the character beyond a high school level. His thorough understanding of Charlie on both an external and internal level was evident. He demonstrated a thorough understanding of the character in both regards. Unwavering commitment to Charlie's initial hunched posture and slow stammer made his gradual transformation into a straight-backed, quick-witted man entirely believable, satisfying, and cathartic, and his regression utterly heartbreaking. Wickham captured the sweet innocence and innate kindness of Charlie as well as the tearful inner turmoil upon gaining awareness of his tragic past and uncertain future.
Charlie was enthralling and dynamic whether delivering a monologue alone or interacting with others, from the sweet teacher-turned-lover Alice Kinnian (Sydney Calvelli) to his team of doctors. The group's subtly differing dynamics grew evident in Act 2 as they reacted to Charlie's progress and deterioration with regret, sympathy, and greed. Ethan Van Slyke developed a strong presence and clear character as the compassionate Burt Seldon. Charlie's family also gave noteworthy performances, with his mother (Emily Sorber) giving an increasingly chilling performance of a conflicted parent and Young Charlie (Will Mosier) commanding attention with his presence alone for its clear connectedness to Charlie.
A detailed, multilevel set created offices and bedrooms (smartly repurposed to create a different apartment in Act 2), and glowing screen "mazes" artfully obscured flashback scenes. The lighting was enchanting. A cyclorama changed colors to match the mood of the scene. Clever costuming (Lily Borg et. al) further enhanced Charlie's emotional journey with subtle changes from a colored sweater to a black and white tuxedo as he gained intelligence and confidence but lost his sweetness. The choice to put him back in his sweater at the end of the show made his final moment on stage all the more poignant and heart-wrenching.
While Charlie (and Algernon)'s time as "a couple of man-made geniuses" was fleeting, the questions of ethics in science, intelligence vs. kindness, and what it means to live a meaningful life are eternal. Freedom High School's attention to detail and emotional vulnerability made their performance of Flowers for Algernon a blissful, painful, powerful maze of humanity.
McLean High School
No gift comes without consequences. Even in the scientific world, unexpected side effects are always a risk. But who could predict that artificially raising a man's intelligence would rob him of his humanity? In an impactful retelling of the classic science-fiction story, Freedom High School has used "Flowers for Algernon" to raise awareness about intellectual disabilities.
Based on the short story and subsequent novel by Daniel Keyes, "Flowers for Algernon" revolves around Charlie Gordon, a kind-hearted, earnest man who was born with an intellectual disability. When a groundbreaking experimental treatment dramatically increases his IQ, Charlie grapples with the consequences of his newfound intelligence, even as it slowly slips away from him. Inspired by events from Keyes' life, the 1966 epistolary novel won the prestigious Nebula Award and was soon adapted into a play by David Rogers.
During the 1960s, in which the novel was written, intellectual disabilities were commonly misunderstood by both the public and academia, and those affected by them were too often treated with contempt and disgust. Despite its scientific origin, the phrase "mental retardation" has become a derogatory term for intellectual disabilities. The use of the word "retard" is preserved in "Flowers for Algernon" for historical accuracy, and to ‘spread the word to end the word.' In approaching the play, Freedom High School worked with their Special Education Department to increase the impact of Charlie's story.
Eric Wickham, as Charlie Gordon, fully committed to the intense intellectual transformation of his character. His emotional arc carried the story as he struggled to find himself in a maze of repressed memories, perfidious friends, and his own development. Will Mosier (Young Charlie) haunt Wickham while capturing his former self, forcing him to relive the trauma of his past.
The whirlwind of doctors treating Charlie were nuanced and sympathetic, while remaining true to their own motivations. Steely Professor Nemur (Josh Lee) and caring Dr. Strauss (Duncan MacLean) had a dynamic fraught with realism, while Burt Seldon (Ethan Van Slyke) stood out as a character that genuinely cared for Charlie's wellbeing. Emily Sorber and Jack Doyle, as Charlie's parents, intentionally embodied their transition from well-meaning to neglectful to malicious through Charlie's flashbacks, casting him out with heartbreaking coldness. Alice Kinnian, portrayed with grace by Sydney Calvelli, was at times a friend, teacher, and even lover to Charlie, her tenderness contrasting the bleak reality of Charlie's world.
Costumes in "Flowers for Algernon" deftly reflected the character's journeys. Although he began in a cheerful blue sweater, as Charlie's IQ increased, he wore drab suits to visualize his loss of humanity. The play took shape in a beautiful set, replete with period-appropriate wood paneling and maze motifs. Particularly creative were the maze-shaped shadow screens that partially obscured Charlie's flashbacks, making them seem hazy and dreamlike.
With "Flowers for Algernon," Freedom High School has proved that it is not our intelligence that defines us, but our character. After all, even when we know what is at the end of the maze, it is the path we choose through it that shows who we really are.