Flowers for Algernon: a cutting human tragedy

Alonna Ray, Contributing Writer

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Photo by Paulina Martin Simon Ledaire chose “Flowers for Algernon” for his senior studio because of the show’s discussion of human dignity. Photo by Paulina Martin.

Poignant and dynamic, Simon Lemaire’s senior studio is a touching drama that explores an issue very personal to the director.

“Flowers for Algernon,” focuses on the life of Charlie Gordon (James Dean), a mentally handicapped man who undergoes an operation aimed at increasing his intelligence in order to achieve a “normal” life.

“I had discovered [the play] many years ago, but I have always had a close connection to it because I have three younger brothers, all with varying mental handicaps,” Lemaire said. “And I had such a strong reaction to this show because I have lived and worked with people like Charlie Gordon, and I know what it’s like to want the world for them but also at the same time have to accept their limitations and to find the happiness and the hope and the meaning in the good times with them.”

After the experimental operation, Charlie gains intelligence far more quickly than anticipated. Not only does he begin to handle concepts such as calculus and physics within months of treatment, but he also develops emotionally at a rapid pace. His relationship with his school teacher, Alice Kinnion (Mary Hinze), is particularly spirited.

“She was always someone that he’[d] looked up to,” Dean said. “At the start of the play it’s partially because she’s familiar. He’s been attending her classes for a long time and she’s the only familiar thing in the world. Everything else is changing. But later, as he begins to develop intellectually and emotionally, he begins to become attracted to her. She believes that at first this is just like a childhood crush, but he continues to love her.”

Kinnion reciprocates this love, but their relationship becomes complicated as the characters realize that Charlie’s mind is deteriorating back to the way it was before the operation.

“As he progresses and gets smarter, she falls in love with him,” Hinze said. “And it comes to a point where she doesn’t know if she can have him. She doesn’t know if it could actually happen; if it could last. So she wrestles with this question: If she knows it’s not going to last, is it worth it?”

Though the story may seem tragic, Lemaire stated that it exhibits the theological virtue of hope, fitting in with the other senior studios’ explorations of love and faith.

“One of the strongest themes is that there is value to people who are not as intelligent as we might be,” Dean said. “They are just as valuable, and there is hope for a good life for them even though they have a lot of problems that we will never deal with. I think that it is a heartwarming story.”

Stage manager Hannah Korman hopes this production starts campus conversations about the dignity of those who are mentally challenged.

“Here we are at a university and we’re trying to improve our intellectual capacities and come to this knowledge, but I think that sometimes we get so caught up in becoming more highly intellectual beings, that we lose those sides of ourselves that we can’t alter, and that we are limited by our human nature, but that’s not a bad thing,” Korman said. “That’s a really beautiful thing because even when our intellect fails, there’s still dignity to each person.”

Hinze passionately spoke about the show’s moving discussion of human dignity.

“As Catholics, human dignity is number one on the checklist: save the babies,” Hinze said. “But I think that this is a different type of human dignity than just being alive. There’s a line in it that states that if we succeed, Charlie will have a life. As if he didn’t have one before. So ultimately the show deals with [the question] ‘what makes a person’s life?’”

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