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Providence Stages Classic Story of Human Cruelty and Courage
2012-02-13

February 23-25, 2012

What makes a human life valuable? From prison-like conditions in mental asylums to forced sterilization centres, history holds appalling examples of the unjust treatment mentally challenged people have suffered in Canada. While such atrocious acts are no longer permitted in our society, the stigmatization of those with low intelligence continues. Words such as “retarded,” “idiot,” and even “special” are used as slurs on playgrounds and in workplaces. Mentally challenged people often experience abuse, neglect, and scorn. Yet these most vulnerable people demonstrate courage, dignity, and trust, exemplifying the good in humanity.

Providence’s production of Flowers for Algernon highlights what is best in the human spirit, while not ignoring the worst. The play is based on the novel by Daniel Keyes, which won the prestigious Nebula award for science fiction in 1966. The film version, Charly, won an academy award two years later. David Rogers adapted the story for the stage in 1969, and multiple film and theatre adaptations followed, including productions in Australia, Czechoslovakia, France, Ireland, Japan, and Poland. The international appeal of the story speaks to its powerful themes, which resonate with human experience in all cultures and countries.

Charlie (Keanan Byggdin) receives instruction from his teacher, Alice Kinnian (Mari Raynard).

Flowers for Algernon tells the compelling story of Charlie, a gentle, mentally challenged man who undergoes experimental surgery to become intelligent. Charlie’s mental progress – and his destiny – is interwoven with that of a mouse named Algernon, who has undergone the same procedure. As Charlie rapidly gains intellectual vigour, he discovers that his doctors, coworkers, and friends are petty, self-serving, and often cruel, not “nice” as he used to believe. His genius and bitterness reach their peak just as Algernon begins to show signs of frightening regression, leaving Charlie scrambling to save himself and his relationship with the woman he loves.

Infused with humour, pathos, romance and tragedy, this play explores complex social realities through the eyes of an innocent. It requires audience and actors alike to examine their own attitudes, coming to terms with how they treat those around them. “Do we value people for who they are, or only for what they can contribute?” asks director Tracy Doerksen. Doerksen frames her directorial vision with the assumption that mentally challenged people are “whole, complete, and worthy of the life given to them,” not lesser beings who need to be fixed.

For Keanan Byggdin, who portrays Charlie, being involved in this production has been a transformative experience. “Flowers for Algernon has given me a fresh perspective on people who live with cognitive challenges or mental illness,” says Byggdin. “After the performance, I can walk away from the character of Charlie, but many people experience these difficulties every day of their lives. We should offer kindness, compassion, and support instead of judgement or vexation.”

Third-year theatre student Kirsty Buhler has a personal connection to the story. Buhler, who plays a sympathetic lab technician, spent a summer as a care worker to mentally challenged children. For her, the message of Flowers for Algernon lies in its values: “Intelligence and success is not the most important thing in life, but loving people, that's important. That's something that lasts forever."

Providence’s annual production is both an artistic and an educational service to the broader community. Approximately 800 high school students attended matinees for last year’s Quiet in the Land, and more are expected this February 22 & 23 for Keyes’ literary classic.

Public performances are 7:30 nightly at Providence University College, Feb. 23-25. Reserve tickets for evening performances are available for $8.50 by calling 433-7488. Tickets will also be available at the door for $10.00.
 

 
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