Review: Flowers for Algernon: A One-Act Play

Flowers for Algernon: A One-Act Play
Flowers for Algernon: A One-Act Play by David Rogers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Book #58 for 2016
Read Harder Challenge Task: Read a play.
The Legendary Book Club of Habitica’s Modest Reading Challenge: A book you should have read in school.

When I was in high school in the ’80s, I participated in IEs (individual events, such as humorous interpretation, duet improv, and poetry reading) at speech and debate tournaments, and scenes from this play were frequent selections. At the time, I found them lacking in context, but they did seem intriguing, so I’m glad that I finally read this play. I am not sure how, when, or where this copy came into my possession, but I’m pretty sure it’s from an early ’70s production at my hometown high school. It’s marked “Stagecrew” and apparently belonged to Ronna Bradley, who had Speech-Debate class in room 235 of what is now Bueker Middle School. James Huesgen, who apparently still lives in Marshall, played Charlie Gordon.

I should point out that there seems to be some confusion in the Goodreads database about this stage adaptation. My copy is 117 pages long and is clearly identified as a full-length play. Goodreads has this listed as “A One-Act Play” and 117 pages long, but the Dramatic Publishing Company’s website clearly states that the one-act version is indeed much shorter — 25 pages long. So I will look into what I as a Goodreads librarian can do to straighten this out.

Anyway, the play. For a relatively short piece, it sure packs a punch. It tells the story of Charlie Gordon, a young man with a mental disability, who is offered (and accepts) the opportunity to not only repair his cognitive functions but to wildly increase his intellectual capacities. The number of issues and concepts explored is kind of amazing. Various facets of the treatment of mental patients are displayed, from the lack of appropriate resources available to families, to workplace bullying, to administrative attitudes dismissive of patient rights. As Charlie’s mental faculties improve, we watch the pain of his growing awareness of how others have viewed him in the past and how those who formerly ridiculed him now lash out in fear and jealousy. And this barely scratches the surface of this deeply thought-provoking material.

It seems to be set in the ’60s (or perhaps the near future of the ’60s) and therefore feels a bit dated, but I think it would be interesting to see a version updated for the 21st century. This was clearly a significant inspiration for the ’90s tech thriller Lawnmower Man, but beyond the initial setup, that movie was a storytelling disaster. Maybe movies like Limitless and Lucy are going for this, but my understanding is that they also fall short of the mark. (I have not seen either of them.) I did rather like Phenomenon (1996), but it was more interested in being a Christ allegory than anything else.

This play was a little weak as far as character development and interpersonal relationships were concerned, but it’s possible that it’s just being a product of its time. It is adapted from a Nebula-winning novel (which is why Shaunesay is letting me link to this review from her Award-Winning Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Challenge blog, even though it doesn’t actually count), so I expect I will eventually read the original novel for comparison.

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