Southside revives “Flowers for Algernon”

Despite a personal love of science fiction and a life in the Theatre, I’ve somehow managed to get through this life so far without encountering Daniel Keyes’s classic stagework, Flowers for Algernon. First published as a short story in 1958, its success (Hugo award winner) prompted the author to expand his story into a novel, which was also awarded (Nebula, 1966).  But that short sentence leaves out much of the story. The story was commissioned by Galaxy Science Fiction magazine which then refused to publish the finished work – unless Keyes changed the ending. The book was likewise rejected by 6 publishers before finally coming out. Of course, Flowers went on to those awards. It also went on to censorship challenges; it’s been banned over the years from school libraries and curriculums.

Keyes was inspired to write Flowers out of his personal experience teaching special needs (though that wasn’t the term used in the 1950’s) students. He watched one youngster in particular, who struggled to regain lost ground after the student was taken from the class for an extended period.

The story is a journey tale, told in epistolary fashion through the journal entries of its protagonist Charlie Gordon. Both he and title character Algernon are the subjects of an experiment – two scientists, well meaning but woefully and clinically detached from human warmth and feeling, who have developed a procedure to dramatically increase intelligence.  Both Algernon, a mouse and then Charlie undergo the procedure and both do enjoy genius – for a time. Then, slowly but inexorably the procedure begins to reverse itself, with heartbreaking results.

So I was happy to go to Southside Theatre Guild to see their production of this classic play. Directed by Keith Williams, the production was solid, if never quite compelling, not quite as tight as one would like. The pacing remained throughout the same steady, grinding slog – though it could be argued that was nothing but appropriate for the material. The cast was likewise; competent if not inspired, though I enjoyed the engaging work of Louisa Grant as Mrs. Donner and Tino Villalovas as Joe.

As Charlie, Josh Hendricks was onstage virtually non-stop, and was engaging enough to carry the role. But this young man lacks the charisma, the steady confidence that takes a stage role from competent to inspired. I hope he’ll continue to work, but I also hope he’ll continue to grow in the craft.

Set changes were glacial, but the design work was fine, particularly in the oversized maze that loomed over the entire setting.

I thank Southside for bringing back to life a classic stagework, and doing it entirely with their volunteer hands. A worthy effort, if not quite inspired.