note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
When Helen Keller was born in Alabama June 27, 1880, she was a normal infant, until she became sick at 19 months old and subsequently lost her sight and hearing. Unfortunately, medical resources were limited, and Helen’s care was restricted, until an unusual young teacher, Anne Sullivan, came from Boston’s Perkins Institution for the Blind to work with her. Although Sullivan had her own problems - orphaned with poor eyesight, poverty-stricken, and the death of her beloved younger brother - she traveled alone to Alabama at age 20, determined to create a positive impact on 7-year-old Helen’s and her family’s lives.
William Gibson’s touching play, “The Miracle Worker,” is a heartwarming, compelling account of Sullivan and her young student’s relationship that led to Miss Keller’s miraculous ability to speak, earn a bachelor of arts degree from Radcliffe College, and become an internationally celebrated, inspiring author, lecturer and activist. When Miss Keller died on June 1, 1968, she was a beacon of hope to the deaf and blind universally.
Helen Keller and her amazing, headstrong teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy’s story is universally well-known, but at Wheelock Family Theater’s production of “The Miracle Worker,” it’s commanding. Susan Kosoff’s insightful direction and the dynamic, physically and emotionally demanding performances of Brittany Rolfs as Annie Sullivan and 8-year-old Audree Hedequist as little Helen are superlative. These talented actresses shine throughout the play, engaging in frequent battles, while growing closer together.
Christine Power as Helen’s enabling mother, Kate, is heart-rending, especially when Annie insists on treating Helen as a “normal” child by physically forcing her to use proper table manners and behavior. Kate’s decision to give Annie full rein over Helen for two weeks is painful, which Power portrays with sympatico. However, Neil Gustafson as her husband is too conflicted - tough and demanding one minute, threatening to fire Annie the next, then yielding later.
Keller’s ambivalent relationship with his son, James (Robert St. Laurence), Helen’s older stepbrother, is also poorly defined. James desperately wants his father’s love and approval, but is sardonic and weak here. Lisa Simpson’s historic costumes and hairdos hearken back to a more formal era, when women wore hats, bustles and cinched-waisted frocks; girls wore pinafores and high-button shoes; and men wore stiff collars and three-piece suits, regardless of the weather.
Keller’s and Sullivan’s quips to each other are telltale reminders of a post-Civil War era, a collision of northerners’ and southerners’ more´s. The Kellers proudly proclaim they’re cousins of Robert E. Lee.
Janie Howland’s handsome two-level set includes indoor and outdoor scenery that intersect at times, using few props for their transition. Scott Clyve’s lighting carefully fades from one scene, then illuminates into the next, while Dewey Dellay’s sounds travel from reality to the paranormal, as Annie undergoes flashbacks and nightmares of her youth, in a Tewksbury poor (alms)house. Dewey also weaves in his original musical interludes for dramatic effect, and Annie Sullivan’s dying brother Jimmie’s pleas, which haunt her - and us.
She was surrounded by death. The fatality rate was high, and Jimmie succumbed three months later. Almost blind, Annie suffered from an untreated eye disease, underwent several surgeries, wore special glasses, and was motivated and supported at the Perkins Institution for the Blind.
Several adorable girls portraying blind residents at Perkins School add a tender touch as they line up and surround Annie, showering her with love and good wishes as she bids them goodbye, to work with Helen.
From opening act to finale, “The Miracle Worker” is a dramatic triumph for all ages.
On May 12, Wheelock welcomes Jaimi Lard, a deaf-blind spokesperson at the Perkins School for the Blind, to its Saturday talk session.