Theatre Mirror Reviews - "The Miracle Worker"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"


entire contents copyright 2008 by Tony Annicone

"The Miracle Worker"

Reviewed by Tony Annicone

2nd Story Theatre's holiday presentation is William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" which originally was a teleplay on Playhouse 90 in 1957 and became a Broadway smash hit in 1959 starring Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller winning them the Tony Awards. After it's adaptation into a film in 1962 it garnered both actresses the Academy Award. The whole run of this show is dedicated to the memory of William Gibson who just died on November 25, a few days after his 94th birthday. "Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye," says Annie Sullivan. Gibson's provocative play is a tribute to teachers everywhere. Unsentimental yet compassionate, this story unveils the courage and tenacity of Annie Sullivan as she wrestles with young deaf and blind Helen Keller, staunchly determined to teach her language, the key to knowledge. In return, Annie embarks on her own journey of self-discovery, love and understanding. It's a powerful message, meant to be shared with the entire family. This stirring dramatization of the story of Helen Keller is one of the most successful and warmly admired plays of the modern stage. She was born in Alabama in 1880 to a genteel post-Confederate family in reduced circumstances. The play begins with the doctor carrying her in his arms to explain that she has brain fever. Helen's mother discovers that she can neither hear or see after this bout of illness. Blind and mute, nobody knows what Helen's fate might have been had she not come under the tutelage of Annie Sullivan, an Irish girl who had been born blind. "The Miracle Worker" is principally concerned with the emotional relationship between the lonely teacher and her blind charge. Young Helen, trapped in her silent world, is bitter, violent, spoiled and almost animal-like. Only Annie realizes that there is a mind waiting to be rescued from that dark, tortured silence. Annie's success with Helen comes after two weeks of the most turbulent, violent, and emotion-packed scenes ever presented on the stage. Director Ed Shea creates a world of darkness for the audience, too by designing a black box set in the form of a cross to symbolize that a strong faith in what is good in the world will ultimately triumph over darkness. He chooses 12 of the best performers in the area to play these well known roles. His and their reward are the standing ovation and the freely flowing tears at the end of this absolutely riveting performance, making it into one of the must see shows of this Christmas season.

Ed's design of this unit set, makes scene changes unnecessary. There are several playing areas which symbolize the Keller home in Alabama complete with doorway and transom (Annie crawls through the transom after the mischievous, Helen steals the key from her and as Annie witnesses her dropping through a grate near the water pump which is the central and most important piece in the show.)kitchen table and chairs, sliding doorway and a stairway. The breakthrough comes as Annie forces Helen fill the water pitcher and she baptizes her with water, in a way, healing her by introducing her into the land of the living via communication skills. Although this is a dramatic piece, Ed infuses it with humorous bits especially with Helen's brother, the maid and her two children as well as the bombastic, blustering of Captain Keller who finds out that he is not always right and has to change his unbending ways. It took two weeks for Annie to work her miracle in the Garden house on the Keller estate and her insistent spelling of words into Helen's hand, force the young girl to finally understand what she is doing. This show is a perfect mixture of comic and dramatic moments with the heaviest burden on the two performers playing the teacher and the pupil but Ed gives each performer, their moment to shine in this well written and well crafted play. Bravo.

Leading this cast are two fabulous actresses who command the stage with their talent. Joanne Fayan who I first saw in the late 1980's in "Great Expectations" at TRIST, plays Annie with a lilting Irish brogue. Her first scene takes place at the Perkin's School for the Blind in Massachusetts, giving the character's backstory on growing up in an institution with her brother, Jimmy. It shows her close relationship with her mentor, Dr. Anagnos (Joan Dillenback, a veteran actress who makes the most of her stage time) who alludes to Annie being a rebellious girl and with one of her fellow blind students, Theadora Goes ( she makes you cry in this tender scene when she gives Annie, a beautiful doll to take with her to Alabama.) Joanne displays Annie's indignation at Helen's behavior at the breakfast table by demanding that everyone leave it immediately. After her long battle with Helen, she emerges triumphant by proclaiming that the girl folded her napkin, "The room is a wreck but she folded her napkin." (There is no actual food used in the show due to the close proximity of the audience.) The metal plates, pitcher and silverware go flying all over the place but the teacher gets her point across even though the kitchen is a disaster area. Annie says discipline is the most important thing to teach Helen and Captain Keller says the same thing about Annie. One of the comic bits that run through the show is that Annie is a bad speller as she looks up words in a dictionary, she proclaims that you have to know how to spell them to find them. Joanne's dramatic prowess shines thru whether she is reprimanding Helen, Captain Keller, commiserating with Mrs. Keller or having an actual conversation with the neglected half brother, James. She has a lot of chemistry with Amy Thompson who plays Helen. Amy is a young woman, (Ed decided to cast an older person in the part due to its very demanding nature.) She keeps her eyes out of focus in the scenes, displaying her strength as a dramatic actress. Also since Amy doesn't have any lines, she must display her emotions by the grunting and antics she does at that certain moment, like happiness when she discovers it is her mother, indifference to her father and anger at Annie as she keeps trying to teach her the right way to behave. Having directed and acted with Amy, I know she makes copious notes on her role and does thorough research and in this role must act with her facial expressions and tone of her grunting. Amy comes thru with flying colors once again, winning the audience over and her lonely teacher who exclaims at the close of the show that she will love Helen forever. (Ed's eye for detail includes when Amy leaves the stage during the blackouts that she reaches out for someone to lead her off the stage, keeping the character blind.) As Helen, Amy teaches her doll the words, Annie has taught her, showing that she has the intelligence to learn as well as teach. The physical demands of these two roles must take a toll on both these women and since the run has been extended a week, hopefully they will have time to recuperate before the new year.

Although some audience members might think this is a two person show, the other roles are just as important to the telling of this story that should reflect how one should learn lessons daily to realize what life is all about. Eric Behr is a commanding figure as the Southern Captain Keller who had better control over his men in the army than he does of his family. He appears cold and uncaring at first but eventually thaws out to show his joy at the transformation of Helen. Erin Olsen, a recent graduate of URI who has lost a great deal of weight, has to wear heavy costumes to portray Kate Keller, the overprotective mother of a blind and deaf child. Having seen her play Ma Joad in "Grapes of Wrath", I know what an accomplished actress she is at young age. Playing her stepson, James is Jonathan Jacobs. He quails and quakes at the wrath of his father until the third act when he changes from the mouse into the lion when he proclaims that his father isn't always right. Jonathan's comic asides and lines keep the show from becoming too heavy before this pivotal scene. Another family member, Aunt Ev is played by Susie Bowen Powers who dotes on and feeds into Helen's misbehavior at the table. Peggy Becker plays Viney, the maid who has many comic one liners. Evan Kinnane and his sister, Patricia play brother and sister, Percy and Martha, Viney's two children in the show. Evan as Percy stays with Annie and Helen in the Garden House for the two weeks and Annie uses him to teach Helen how to behave there. An insightful essay which was written by Eileen Warburton should be read either before the show or after it, to gain more thought provoking material to be digested. (I was in "A Winter's Tale" at TRIST with her then 7 year old son, Nye who is now a grown man and an animator in California. Luckily I had a chance to catch up with him at this performance.) Playing the doctor who discovers Helen has scarlet fever is Ryan Maxwell who is the Operations manager for this show. The colorful costumes are by Allison Carrier Walker and the intricate lighting design is by Ron Allen with technical direction by Trevor Elliot. So for an outstanding performance of this well known show, "The Miracle Worker", be sure to catch it before time runs out. Tell them Tony sent you.

"The Miracle Worker" (23 November - 21 December)
2ND STORY THEATRE
28 Market Street, WARREN RI
1 (401)247-4200

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