BWW Review: FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON AND THE INSANITY OF MARY GIRARD at Oyster Mill Playhouse

BWW Review: FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON AND THE INSANITY OF MARY GIRARD at Oyster Mill Playhouse

Flowers for Algernon was originally published as a short story in 1959. Writer Daniel Keyes developed this science fiction story into a novel published in 1966. One of the most popular adaptations of the book is the film Charly. Flowers for Algernon explores themes of morality, particularly with respect to scientific advancement and the way in which society treats those who are intellectually disabled, and happiness, including what constitutes happiness and how people see happiness differently depending on what they value. The Insanity of Mary Girard is a one act play by Lanie Robertson published in 1979. The main character is based on Mary Lum, wife of the wealthy Stephen Girard, who was committed to the insanity ward of the Pennsylvania Hospital by her husband. This remarkable play examines classism, sexism, and the stigma that was and often still is attached to mental illness. The story of Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon was actually part of what inspired me to study psychology in college. Because of this, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the stage version of Flowers for Algernon and my first experience seeing The Insanity of Mary Girard at Oyster Mill Playhouse.

From the moment he stepped on stage, Anthony Geraci, who portrays Charlie Gordon in Flowers for Algernon, was precisely what I envisioned when I first read the book many years ago. As his character develops and becomes more intelligent following his operation, Geraci alters his posture, body language, eye contact, facial expressions, and speech patterns. At times, particularly in the earlier scenes, these changes are subtle; at other times they are more pronounced, matching the speed of Charlie's progress in the experiment. As he becomes more and more self-aware, the audience sees him begin to question things and to explore the meaning of love and happiness. Geraci's superb acting draws the audience into the questions with him, and when Charlie starts to realize what his fate might ultimately be, it is absolutely heart-wrenching. By far one of the most remarkable scenes is the one in which Charlie talks about Algernon's death and the implications for his own future, displaying in speech, facial expressions, and body language the conflict within Charlie and his anger toward the scientists who have treated him like another lab rat. As Charlie begins to return to his previous state, again, Geraci's timing in his alterations of speech pattern, posture, body language, and so forth is spot on. Even more impressive is the way in which his characterization of Charlie emphasizes the questions the play brings out-questions about how society treats the mentally disabled and questions about what happiness truly is. In The Insanity of Mary Girard, the audience is treated to another stellar performance by Geraci as he portrays her husband, Stephen Girard. A completely different character from Charlie, Geraci handles this character with the same level of intensity and attention to detail that makes his Charlie so compelling.

Caitlyn Davis first appears on stage with Denise Carman as one of the lab techs in Flowers for Algernon. Together, along with Shelby White, who plays Bert (the only named lab tech), they succeeded in making this writer want to actually yell at them for treating Charlie as an experiment to be mocked and laughed at as they read his progress reports aloud to one another for entertainment. Finally, as Charlie starts to realize his fate, the lab techs start to feel some true compassion; while it's not an overt change, the facial expressions and tone of voice the women use in the last few scenes demonstrates their feelings of sadness for Charlie and perhaps some inkling of guilt at the role they played in the experiment and how they treated him.

The audience has an opportunity to see more from these women in The Insanity of Mary Girard. Shelby White's portrayal of Polly Kenton/Fury #3 utilizes some similar characterizations as her role of Bert in the first act. White's Polly is aloof and matter of fact as she explains how Mary is expendable to her husband-just another in a long line of maids and servants that he seduces. White makes it easy to dislike Polly as she laughs at Mary's predicament and rubs her face in the fact that Stephen perhaps cares more for her than he does for his wife.

Denise Carman also appears as one of the furies and as Mrs. Lum, Mary Girard's mother. While I thought her character could have been more convincing if she'd been a little harsher and colder, her borderline sarcasm while she berates Mary for not being happy with her marriage and husband fits the character well. Carman must also be commended for how she handled the lines regarding abuse. As a woman it could not have been easy to say those lines blaming the victim and telling her she ought to be grateful to her abuser, and Carman manages to put herself in the mindset of a mother in that time-period to deliver those lines with fervor and forthrightness.

Caitlyn Davis portrays the title role in The Insanity of Mary Girard. The emotional range in her acting is wonderful-from confused and scared as she realizes that her husband has committed her to the asylum to haughty and pompous as she tries to explain to the warder that there must be some mistake because she's the "wife of Stephen Girard" to overwhelmed and determined to get out of the asylum to finally, paradoxically, taking charge and accepting her fate. The most compelling scenes are the ones in which she begins to accept that the furies are hers-that she has control over them-and that she can both command them and embrace them. Davis plays these scenes with passion and strength, transforming Mary from a woman who is tortured by her thoughts to one who sees the truth in them and accepts them. Her final scene, which I'm not going to describe, because you have to see it for yourself, brings chills.

Miranda Baldys is easily my favorite fury in The Insanity of Mary Girard. She is the most unique of the furies, almost portraying a childlike enthusiasm, reminding the audience that we all have disparate voices in our heads from different experiences that have shaped us over the years. Her other role in The Insanity of Mary Girard, is that of Mrs. Hatcher, who becomes the mother to Mary's child. Her reaction to hearing that the baby was the child of one of the inmates of the insane asylum brings to light perfectly the stigma attached to mental illness. Even more impressive is the way in which Baldys portrays Alice Kinnian in Flowers for Algernon. From the beginning, it is easy for the audience to see her internal turmoil as she questions her decision to volunteer Charlie for the operation and later as she questions the nature of her relationship with Charlie.

Jeff McNelly is another actor who has the opportunity to explore two completely different characters between Flowers for Algernon and The Insanity of Mary Girard. As Professor Nemur in Flowers for Algernon, he is delightfully pompous and arrogant, at one point even stating "I have a PhD". While to some audience members his speech pattern may seem overly stilted in this character, I found it a fitting juxtaposition to the younger doctor and to Charlie himself-he really sounds like a textbook. McNelly's Professor Nemur is played as completely detached and having no compassion as he sees Charlie as nothing more than a subject in an experiment. The remorse that he feels toward the end is clearly remorse due to the failure of his experiment rather than feeling any sorrow or guilt for what he did to Charlie. Quite the opposite of Professor Nemur is the role of the warder in The Insanity of Mary Girard. The warder is responsible for the confinement of those committed to the insanity ward at the hospital. Adopting a new speech pattern, relaxed posture, and unrefined manner, McNelly becomes the warder in a very convincing way.

Dakota Eschenmann rounds out this phenomenal ensemble cast with a wonderful portrayal of Dr. Strauss in Flowers for Algernon and Mr. Philips/Fury in The Insanity of Mary Girard. Eschenmann's Dr. Strauss quickly became one of my favorite characters in Flowers for Algernon because of the compassion he shows in his facial expressions and tone of voice. More than anyone else involved in the experiment, he seems to see and understand the price that Charlie could pay as their guinea pig. Even as he sees the hard work of his experiment disintegrating, Eschenmann's Dr. Strauss shows the audience that a part of him feels truly sorry as they discuss Charlie's future. In The Insanity of Mary Girard, Eschenmann has a similar role to play in the character of Mr. Philips, who finds it hard to believe that Stephen Girard would want his wife to give birth on the insanity ward. In the case of Mr. Philips, though, a check for $3000 and the promise of more money for the hospital overrides his feelings of concern and compassion for the wife and her unborn child. Eschenmann's transition from astonishment over Mr. Girard's coldness toward his wife to acquiescence as he takes the check from this powerful and wealthy man is timed perfectly.

Overall the cast demonstrates a truly wonderful ability to convincingly play multiple roles in such a way that when the audience sees them in The Insanity of Mary Girard, they are not even tempted to see the character they played in Flowers for Algernon. Oh, and in remarking on the cast, I can't forget to mention the real mouse who played Algernon when he was first introduced in Act 1!

Making these two one act plays even more compelling were the set, costumes, and lighting. The way in which the set was designed so that the audience could see the characters on the other side of the observation windows watching Charlie in Flowers for Algernon really made the audience feel that they too were observing an experiment. The costuming for the entire show was well thought out and properly evoked the correct time period for each show and personality of each character. The costumes for the Furies in The Insanity of Mary Girard are particularly spectacular. Finally, the lighting design in The Insanity of Mary Girard deserves to be acknowledged as well. While the lighting in the first act is relatively straightforward, the creative lighting design for the second act is beautiful, dreamlike, and very fitting for a glimpse into the mind of Mary Girard.

This was my first time seeing a performance of two one-act shows back to back. The cast, crew, and production team for Flowers for Algernon and The Insanity of Mary Girard definitely deserve a round of applause for their work on these shows.

Flowers for Algernon and The Insanity of Mary Girard will be on stage at Oyster Mill Playhouse through July 22nd. Visit www.oystermill.com to get your tickets today.

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From This Author Andrea Stephenson

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