Kelly Cook had an attitude problem. She wasn’t nasty enough.
“Kelly, you’ve got to be meaner,” director Adam Graham told her as she rehearsed for Thomas Wootton High School’s fall drama, “Flowers for Algernon.”
With “Flowers,” Wootton’s cast tackles material that is a departure from the familiar comedies and musicals of high school theater.
“Flowers for Algernon,” at Wootton Nov. 3, 4 and 5, is a stage adaptation of the Daniel Keyes novel of the same name, an exploration of disability and prejudice.
Senior Alex Marston plays Charlie Gordon, a man who has mental retardation until he undergoes an operation that makes him brilliant.
That’s when Cook needs to turn nasty. She plays Alice Kinninan, Charlie’s teacher. “At first, she’s a really sympathetic teacher,” Cook said. “As Charlie gets smarter, the roles are reversed, and that’s really hard for her.”
Alice is like most of the play’s other characters, including Charlie himself, who initially wish to see Charlie become intelligent. When it becomes a reality, nobody is sure how to handle it.
IN FLASHBACKS to Charlie’s childhood, senior Allison Grekin plays Charlie’s mother. “His mother was pretty insane, and when he was a child, she was obsessed with him being normal,” Grekin said. “It’s really destroyed her life that she tries to make him normal.”
Charlie himself longs to be intelligent, and in adulthood, he gets the opportunity through an experimental medical procedure. Marston's performance illustrates Charlie's evolving character, as he gains awareness of ugly realities that were once unknown to him.
“They don’t really know how the experiment is going to work out. … They’re just going to do it.” Grekin said.
As Charlie becomes more intelligent, he becomes more attuned to the cruelty and deception he had experienced before, and often still does.
“His life changes, and he starts to realize that people aren’t as good as he thought they were,” Grekin said. “It’s a question of whether [Charlie] is better off.”
GRAHAM, a newcomer to Wootton this year, is happy to see students grappling with the material.
He chose the play in part because he had directed it before, which simplified the transition for his first show at Wootton — but also to expose the student actors to serious drama.
“If I had my druthers I’d probably end up doing comedies all of the time,” said Graham, who did mostly comedies as a professional actor. “[But] it’s not all about what I want to do. … If [students] don’t get exposed to doing some other genre of play, then they get cheated.”
The novel “Flowers for Algernon” is also part of the ninth-grade English curriculum in Montgomery County schools, making it a good choice for both actors and student audiences.
More than that, though, it escapes one of the pitfalls of high school drama, Graham said: “seeing kids act like kids all the time.”
“A lot of comedies, kids are sort of goofing around, acting like themselves. I think kids are interested to see their peers play something that’s a little bit more challenging,” he said.
THE CAST has responded.
“I’ve worked with a lot of casts, and I love this one,” said senior Laura Hurst, the assistant director. “Everyone wants to stay as long as they can. They don’t want to go home and do homework. They just want to stay here and do the show because it’s what they love.”
Cast members have an easy rapport on stage with Graham, who is more likely to be seen laughing or speaking quietly than chewing out an actor.
“What you’re trying to get kids to do is to expose themselves and take chances, and they’re not going to do that if they feel uptight about doing so. So I like to kind of free up the atmosphere,” Graham said.
Performances, not gags, will be at the heart of the “Algernon” performances.
Senior Claire Murphy helped assemble revolving stages for “Les Miserables” and “Suessical” in past years. But the set for “Algernon” is minimalist — a platform at center stage with a several stairs and ramps jutting off.
“It brings more focus to the actors,” Murphy said.
“It’s amazing to see your classmates being so into their roles,” Murphy continued. “They’re really funny, goofy people … but when they’re in character, they’re amazing.”