Thursday, October 31, 2013
WALLA WALLA — For this fall’s production of “Flowers for Algernon,” Walla Walla High School drama teacher Brian Senter wants to get the audience close to the action.
The play, a science fiction exploration of what happens when a mentally disabled janitor is granted extreme intelligence only to lose it again, is a small affair, with much of it taking part inside the main character’s head and told through his journal entries.
And to make sure the audience can see every moment, “Flowers for Algernon” will be performed “in the round.”
The audience will be seated onstage on risers surrounding a relatively small space for the actors to perform, meaning there will only be 140 tickets available per show and the atmosphere will be intimate.
“I’ve always wanted to (produce ‘Flowers for Algernon’),” Senter said, “but I didn’t think that it would work for the regular format type stage that we have. I thought, how can I make these still, small moments actually work?
“So I changed it,” Senter said. “I changed the setting itself.”
“Flowers for Algernon” is based on a short story by Daniel Keyes published in 1959.
The story follows Charlie Gordon, a janitor with an IQ of 68, whose intelligence skyrockets after he undergoes an experimental treatment.
“His brain, well, it’s a work in progress,” Senter said.
“What happened to the guy is they cut open his head, they cut some stuff out, and then they injected some funky growth stuff in there to make his brain grow at an exponential rate. So by the time we’re about halfway through the play, his IQ is pushing 200.”
Gordon discovers he will eventually regress after a lab mouse, Algernon, who was given the treatment first, eventually dies.
The play becomes a race against time as the now-genius Gordon struggles to find a way to retain his newfound intelligence.
The story is told through a series of journal entries and encompasses several dark themes, such as the treatment of the mentally disabled and intelligence’s impact on one’s emotional state.
But Senter said he wasn’t concerned that the play was overly dark.
“It deals with the problem of responsibility,” Senter said. “It’s not gratuitously awful. It’s well done, and it’s awful because it documents the way people see themselves and other people based on their intelligence.”
Ultimately Gordon regresses, although he retains the knowledge that he was at one point a genius.
He loses the relationships he built while intelligent and, unable to cope, he eventually leaves to live anonymously at a home for the mentally challenged.
“I know that a lot of people don’t like to look at it this way,” Senter said, “but I think it’s true. I think, truthfully, that there was a person we watched be born on stage, and he has his life, and then he dies. He literally dies.
“That guy, who was there, is gone.”
Senter said his first direction of a play in the round brings its own challenges.
“It’s more difficult to balance the stage,” Senter said, “because you can’t have everyone facing the same way at once.
“So you’ve got to balance it differently. This person is telling part of the story and facing this part of the audience, and the other person is telling the story and is facing that part. Well you’re going to get both parts of it. And on the sides they’re going to get it too. But it’s just going to be different.”