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Lead actors lift 'Flowers for Algernon' by Deaf West

October 03, 2013|By F. Kathleen Foley
  • Daniel N. Durant as Charlie Gordon in Deaf West's 'Flowers for Algernon' at the Whitefire Theatre.
Daniel N. Durant as Charlie Gordon in Deaf West's 'Flowers for… (Ed Krieger )

“Flowers for Algernon” certainly has traction. Daniel Keyes' 1959 short story about Charlie Gordon, a mentally disabled man transformed into a genius by a scientific experiment, has been subsequently adapted into a novel, a film and even a musical. 

Now, David Rogers' 1969 play has been mounted by the Deaf West company at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. The highly sentimentalized drama seems an unusual choice for Deaf West, and the production, which in typical Deaf West fashion utilizes both signing and voiced actors, does not always avoid bathos. 

Matthew McCray, a hearing director and the veteran of dozens of professional productions, helms the hugely ambitious proceedings, but despite the fact that the play has been pared down from a cast of nearly 30 to an even dozen or so, the sheer scope of this undertaking sometimes exceeds McCray's usually authoritative grasp. 

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A chief culprit is Sarah Krainin's scenic design, which consists primarily of clear screens on metal poles that are shoved on a system of runners into various configurations. Daring in concept, the set is needlessly laborious in execution, requiring the actors to push, pull and just generally fuss with the fixtures, to little compositional effect. 

In Adam Flemming's projection design, the screens flash graphics, videos and, most importantly, supertitles — an essential interpretive tool for those in the audience not conversant with ASL. Too often, those supertitles are blocked by the actors' bodies — a novice mistake that seems strange in a director as seasoned as McCray. 

Fortunately, the central performance by Daniel N. Durant focuses the sprawl and lends this “Algernon” poignant force. Nicely balanced by the sweetly subtle Hillary Baack as Charlie's teacher and love interest, Durant's Charlie progresses from the halting and inarticulate to a peak of passion and manliness, then back again into mental disability. It's a pyrotechnical, beautifully signed performance that largely ameliorates the play's treacly sentimentality and establishes Durant as an actor to be reckoned with. 

“Flowers for Algernon,” Deaf West Theatre @ the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 3. $30. (818) 762-2998. www.deafwest.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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