Deaf West Theatre Puts Unique Spin on Flowers for Algernon

Aug 26, 2013
Flowers for Algernon

 Using its signature, award-winning combination of signed and voiced theater to bring new perspective to a modern American classic, Deaf West Theatre presents Flowers for Algernon at the Whitefire Theatre, opening Sept. 28.

Matthew McCray directs David Rogers' stage adaptation of Daniel Keyes' moving novel about an intellectually disabled man who undergoes experimental surgery to increase his IQ to the level of genius.

Poignant, funny and thought-provoking, Flowers for Algernon is the story of Charlie Gordon (Daniel Durant), willing subject of an extraordinary experiment, and the strange interweaving of his life with Algernon, a mouse whose intelligence has been increased threefold by the daring new procedure. When the operation is performed on intellectually disabled Charlie, his mental capacity changes and so does his life. Suddenly, Charlie (voiced by Josh Breslow) must deal with his blossoming love for his former teacher (Hillary Baack); the uncovered memory of how he was treated as a child by his mother (Sarah Lilly) and sister (Crystal Lott); the complications that arise when his own intelligence exceeds that of his employer (Melanie H. Vansell) and his doctors (Charles Katz, Bruce Katzman and Alek Lev); and conflicting emotions regarding his own former, childhood self (voiced by Sean Easton)

Deaf West Theatre productions weave American Sign Language (ASL) with spoken English to create a seamless ballet of movement and voice. In a unique twist on the Flowers for Algernon story, Charlie learns to celebrate his deaf identity and becomes a master of ASL, a "super-signer."

"ASL will be the visual embodiment of the high IQ that Charlie achieves," says Deaf West artistic director David J. Kurs. "As Charlie's IQ grows, his signing will become ever more fluent and beautiful, until he is creating pictures in the air."

"Because our natural intelligence is often masked, Charlie's experience is similar in some ways to that of the average deaf person," Kurs explains. "When we're young, we're subjected to a battery of medical tests and are often at the mercy of the medical profession. Our parents aren't always able to embrace that we are different and want to make us 'better.' Cochlear implants and other procedures that could possibly offer perfect hearing have brought about the question: what does the future hold for the deaf community?"

In Deaf West's production, deafness becomes a metaphor for the ongoing "disability vs. difference" debate.

Sharon Jensen, executive director of the Tony Award -winning Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, notes that "Once again, Deaf West continues to provide not only artistic excellence to its audiences, but also to explore our most socially relevant issues in a responsible manner."

Concludes director McCray, "This production is a head-on look at the variety of experience that is lived throughout the world."

Set design for Flowers for Algernon is by Sarah Krainin, lighting design is by Jeremy Pivnick, costume design is by Gwyneth ConawayBennison [sic], sound design is by Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski and projection design is by Adam Flemming. The ASL Master is Shoshannah Stern, and assistant ASL Masters are Benjamin Lewis and Amber Zion. David J. Kurs and Laura Hill produce for Deaf West Theatre.

Flowers for Algernon was first published as a short story in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was reprinted many times in many languages and won the Hugo Award. In 1961, the U.S. Steel Hour telecast a dramatic version called The Two Worlds of Charlie Gordon, starring Cliff Robertson. From 1962 to 1965, Keyes worked on the novel-length version. It was published in 1966, winning the Nebula Award, and is now still available in both hardcover and Bantam paperback editions (Harcourt, Brace, 1966; Bantam, 1968, reissued in the Harcourt Brace Modern Classics series, 1995). It has been widely translated and is studied in schools and colleges around the world. Cliff Robertson won an Academy Award for his performance in the 1968 movie version, Charly. Developed as a dramatic musical in 1979, Charlie and Algernon was performed at the Queen's Theater in London's West End starring Michael Crawford; at the Terrace and Eisenhower theaters in Washington, D.C.; and at the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway.

David J. Kurs is the second Deaf West artistic director in the company's 23-year history. Under his leadership, Deaf West co-produced the award-winning world premiere of Cyrano by Stephen Sachs with the Fountain Theatre (Los Angeles Drama Circle Award for Outstanding Production). Previously, he served as the company's artistic associate; he was associate producer and ASL Master on Deaf West productions of Pinocchio (2011), My Sister in This House (2010) and Children of a Lesser God (2009); and he wrote Aesop Who? (2008). A native of Riverside, CA and graduate of Gallaudet University, he has worked as a freelance writer and producer of a variety of documentary, commercial, theatrical and narrative projects.

Matthew McCray recently directed the critically acclaimed West coast premiere of Our Class by Tadeusz Słobodzianek; the U.S premiere of Martin Crimp's The City; and world premieres of Death of a Salesgirl by Patricia Scanlon and of his own original work, Eternal Thou, which received a 2013 remount at South Coast Repertory through StudioSCR. He is the founding artistic director of Son of Semele Ensemble (SOSE) which was profiled by American Theatre in 2004 as one of the country's top up-and-coming theater ensembles. In the last 13 years, Matthew has produced over 25 plays for SOSE and has grown the company into both a production company for its LA-based membership ensemble and an incubator organization serving progressive theater artists from across the country. Matthew was in residence with Center Theatre Group in 2008 developing Fencerow to Fencerow, his original play about American agriculture, funded, in part, by a grant from the EST/Sloan Foundation Project in Science and Technology. He has directed productions and workshops for Center Theatre Group, REDCAT, South Coast Repertory, Bootleg Theatre, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, Son of Semele Ensemble, Rogue Machine, Circle X, Moving Arts and others.

Deaf West Theatre is recognized as the premier sign language theater in the United States. Over the last 23 years, DWT has produced over 40 plays and four musicals, winning more than 80 theater awards including a Tony nomination and four Drama Desk Awards for the Broadway production of Big River, which also received Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and Backstage Garland awards for Best Musical when it first premiered in L.A. Other award-winning productions include Cyrano (a co-production with the Fountain Theatre - Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Production), A Streetcar Named Desire (Ovation Award for Best Play, 2000) and Oliver! (Ovation Award for Best Musical, 2000). In 2005, DWT was selected to receive the Highest Recognition Award by the Secretary of Health and Human Services for its "distinguished contributions to improve and enrich the culture lives of deaf and hard of hearing actors and theater patrons."

Flowers for Algernon runs Sept. 28 through Nov. 3, with performances on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Two preview performances will take place on Sept. 26 and 27 on the same schedule. An Audience Talk Back with special guest David Serlin, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of Communication UC San Diego, will follow the matinee performance on Sunday, Oct. 6. ASL Nights will be offered every Thursday in Oct.: arrive at 7:30 pm for a ½ hour workshop that teaches signs used in the play. General admission is $30; tickets to previews are $20; a $20 "back to school" special is being offered the first three weeks of performances for students with a valid ID (through Oct. 13); and there will be one pay-what-you-can performance on Sunday, Oct. 13. The Whitefire Theatre is located at 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks, CA 91423. There is ample street parking. The theater is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call (818) 762-2998 (voice) or go to