REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
This past spring, R. Shane Bingham took on the challenging task of portraying British talk show host David Frost in High Street Arts Center’s outstanding production of Frost/Nixon. In his next major role, the stage adaptation of Daniel Keyes’ novel, Flowers for Algernon, the talented Bingham has taken on another complex character, Charlie Gordon, the play’s mentally challenged but sweet-natured custodian who becomes the subject of an ambitious but doomed scientific experiment.
Algernon, which plays through August 23rd at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse, is an emotional, heart-wrenching production that is, in effect, a modern-day science fiction tale akin to Frankenstein or The Invisible Man. In both stories, a man goes through a physical transformation, conducted in accordance with a scientific theory. As in Algernon, each experiment results in disastrous effects.
Charlie Gordon is a mild-mannered, friendly, but mentally retarded 32-year-old with an IQ of 68 who works at a bakery. Two researchers at the Beekman Center for Retarded Adults, where Charlie attends school, have developed a surgical technique that they believe enhances intelligence and use Charlie as their first human test case, after experiments on a mouse who they named Algernon appear to be successful. As in Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, the experiment goes awry with tragic results. In the process, we learn how Charlie has been psychologically damaged by the true monster of the story – not the ambitious, self-centered scientists, but his own mother.
Bingham is simply superb as Charlie. His performance depends on his ability to be in a constant state of change, as his personality is transformed as a result of the surgery. The key to Bingham’s performance is the gradual and subtle progression his personality undertakes as his IQ increases. First, he becomes excessively inquisitive and curious at the world around him. His thirst for knowledge becomes insatiable, but soon, he becomes edgy, irritable, and desperately lonely. (The red baseball cap that Bingham wears represents his initial emotional state. As his intelligence increases, the cap is dispensed with.) Charlie falls in love with his former teacher, Alice Kinnian, sensitively played by Cecily Hendricks, but is unable to get close to her because of terrifying apparitions of his old self. Soon, he has surpassed even her intelligence, which further isolates him from the people around him. Most horrific of all are his memories of his early life, growing up in a family with an abusive mother, passive father, and antagonistic younger sister.
Rose Gordon, Charlie’s mother, is played by Brandy Jones, and it is a performance that is both haunting and disturbing in its viciousness. Jones’ gaunt physical appearance is heightened by pale face makeup that is gives her a pallor that is ghostly as well as frightening. Director William Carmichael made sure to heighten Charlie’s fear of his mother through effective lighting and shadows in the flashback scenes, initially revealing no details of Rose’s face to reflect Charlie’s fuzzy memory of her. (Carmichael’s lighting team also include Dean Johnson and Leigh Puhek.) Also effective are Mark Heulitt as Charlie’s milquetoast father and Olivia Heulett as Charlie’s sister Norma.
Larry Swartz plays Dr. Jayson Strauss, whose interest in Charlie is little different from the laboratory mouse that was his first subject. Strauss’ partner, Professor Harold Nemur, played by Todd Tickner, is more interested in the glory he craves and becomes impatient when Charlie develops personality problems and begins to show signs of regressing. Michele Selin gives an especially effective turn as Charlie’s Irish landlady, Mrs. Mooney.
The changes Charlie undergoes during his transformation, which peak when his IQ reaches genius status, expose the flaws in the people around him. Alice becomes more resentful, Rose gets dementia in her older age, and Charlie’s sister Norma becomes more sensitive to him. Flowers for Algernon shows all the characters, not just Charlie, going through these metamorphoses, and the cast does a universally excellent job of reflecting the constant change each character experiences.
Despite occasional lulls in the pacing, Flowers for Algernon is an engrossing and disturbing psychological horror story and well worth seeing. (You might recall Cliff Robertson’s Oscar-winning performance in the 1968 film adaptation, Charly.) The production is not suitable for younger children.
Flowers for Algernon plays through August 23 at the Camarillo Skyway Playhouse. For dates and showtimes, see the VC On Stage Calendar.