Flowers for Algernon, Village Players Theatre. Daniel Keyes's 1966 novel, turned into the movie Charly in 1968 and adapted for the stage by David Rogers in 1969, stumbles into sentimental hogwash--but it's hogwash with a sting. Watching Nathaniel S. Swift's staging for Oak Park's Village Players, I was struck by the underlying subversion of the tale, penned nearly 30 years BG--before Gump. Like a human smoothie additive, the saintly idiot savant Forrest Gump blends agreeably into any situation, but Keyes's Charlie Gordon is a seething, unsettling mass of resentment, disappointment, and outright rage.
Carl Occhipinti delivers a nimble, affecting performance as the retarded man whose IQ is increased by experimental brain surgery. As his intellect grows, so does his awareness of how badly he's been treated--by his abusive, frightened mother, his coworkers at a bakery, and the medical establishment. In the scene where he finally realizes that his coworkers have been making fun of him for years, Occhipinti's Charlie channels the kind of primal heartbreak Oscar Wilde gave the crippled dancing dwarf in his children's classic The Birthday of the Infanta. Compared to Occhipinti's fluid, multilayered characterization, the rest of the cast is stiff. Still, Swift gives this surprisingly sturdy chestnut an unexpected edge and the occasional violent emotional kick to the sternum.