NICK APOSTOLINA triumphs as Charlie Gordon, the lead character in the classic sci-fi parable, Flowers for Algernon. I believe the late Cliff Robertson, who won a Best Actor Oscar in 1968 for his portrayal of Charlie in the movie version (Charly,) would have saluted the enormous talent that Nick brings to this stage version of Charlie, one of the most challenging roles for actors of any age.
Indeed, the entire cast shines under DIRECTOR GUY MYERS, whose masterful handling of the play’s many subtexts makes it easy to see why Flowers for Algernon, written in the middle of the last century, still speaks to us today. Friday night’s performance at Burroughs High School was university level, yet another indication of just how outstanding the arts programs are in the Burbank public schools.
On the surface, the story is about an experimental brain operation meant to permanently boost the intelligence. (Those familiar with 21st century neuroscience should forgive the “brain tissue” explanation offered. We’ve learned a lot about the brain in the past 50-plus years.) Charlie Gordon with his IQ of 68 and sweet nature, seems to be an ideal person to be the first human candidate for the procedure. The surgery had worked for lab mouse Algernon, who has become smart enough to figure out his way out of a maze way faster than pre-operation Charlie.
And the procedure works for Charlie, who is rapidly propelled to an Einstein level of genius. But as Charlie approaches the peak of his brilliance, Algernon begins showing frightening symptoms of regression. And Charlie focuses his powerful mind on figuring out the reason why.
In spite of its demanding roles, Flowers for Algernon is a very good match for young adult actors. As a much more intelligent Charlie himself admits, his emotional reactions are lagging behind his intellectual advancement. And I suspect many high school and college women would say that Charlie’s observation also applies to many of the young men they encounter. (You gals seem to navigate the emotional space between childhood and adulthood a bit faster than we guys.)
At one point Charlie says, “I can’t help thinking I’m not me.” How many of us at some point in our own journey to adulthood, wrestling with some new facet of our personality, have felt he same way?
Even the scientists and doctors attending Charlie, with their preoccupation with scientific success, come of as less emotionally aware than the women. (And before you pass judgment on Charlie’s mother, keep in mind that her husband is unwilling to share the emotional burden.) This is the kind of brilliant acting on the part of the wider cast that reveals a deep understanding of the play.
But Flowers for Algernon also speaks to anyone facing Alzheimer’s either as victim or caregiver. When Charlie regresses, he loses memory as well as intelligence. Some of us, favored by nature with the kind of intelligence that the operation gave Charlie, may nevertheless suffer Charlie’s fate.
End spoiler alert.
And for me, there was at least one more subtext of the play: status anxiety. Anxiety over a child’s future, anxiety over how a child’s achievements (or lack of same) affects the family’s present status. More than ever, there seems to be a pervasive fear that, if you’re not super smart (or at least seen that way by virtue of having the right degree from the right college), you’ll be a loser. You’ll live in semi-poverty, fail to attract a respectable mate, and in general be the target of various forms of disrespect. (And as we read from time to time, the target of various frauds and financial scams.)
This is the fear of a society that has forgotten that intelligence is more than intellect. Wisdom and empathy are in the gut and the heart as well as the brain.
The John Burroughs High School Dramatic Association has given us a play that invites us to think about our situation today, even as it entertains and wows us with young actors that are definitely experiencing brain boosts of their own. But their mastery of the craft is not the gift of a high tech pill (like in Limitless) or a medical breakthrough. They’re doing it the old fashioned way, with hard work and dedication.
John Burroughs High School Auditorium is on 1920 Clark Avenue, near the corner of Keystone Boulevard, in Burbank, CA 91506. Performances are Saturday, November 22 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, November 23 at 2 p.m. General admission is $12. Seniors/students/faculty, $8.