note: entire contents copyright 2016 by Tony Annicone
Ocean State Theatre Company's spring production is William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" which originally was a teleplay on Playhouse 90 in 1957. It 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. "Language is to the mind more than light is to the eye," Annie Sullivan said. 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 Hellen 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. Annie's success with Helen comes after two of the most turbulent, violent and emotion-packed scenes ever presented on stage. Director Amiee Turner picks the best 10 performers to play these well known roles. Her and their reward is the standing ovation and the freely flowing tears at the end of this riveting performance, making it into one of the must see shows of this spring season.
Although this is a dramatic piece, Amiee 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. The water pump is the most important set piece in the show because the breakthrough comes as Annie forces Helen to fill the water pitcher and Annie baptizes her with the water, in a way, healing her by introducing her into the land of the living via communication skills. 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 the perfect mixture of comic and dramatic moments with the heaviest burden on the two performers playing the teacher and pupil but Amiee gives each performer their moment to shine in this well written and well crafted script.
Leading this cast are two fabulous actresses who command the stage with their talent. Brittany Rolfs plays Annie with a lilting Irish brogue. I first reviewed Britney at Turtle Lane Playhouse in "Buddy Holly" and in "The Full Monty." Annie grew up with her brother at the Perkin's School for the Blind in Watertown, MA. Brittany 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 uttering "The room is a wreck but she folded the napkin." Annie proclaims discipline is the most important thing to teach Helen and the Captain says the same thing about Annie. One of the comic bits running through the show is that Annie is a bad speller and has to look up words in a dictionary while saying that you have to know how to spell them to find them. Brittany's dramatic prowess shines through whether she is reprimanding Helen and Captain Keller, commiserating with Mrs. Keller or having an actual conversation with the neglected half brother, James. She has a lot of chemistry with Laurel McMahon who plays Helen. She keeps her eyes out of focus in her scenes, portraying a blind girl splendidly. Laurel displays Helen's emotions by grunting and the antics does at that certain moment, like happiness when she discovers its her mother, indifference to her father and anger at Annie as she keeps trying to teach her the right way to behave. Laurel wins the audience over as well as her teacher who exclaims at the close of the show that she will love Helen forever.
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 about how one should learn lessons daily to realize what life is all about. Kevin B. McGlynn is a commanding figure as Captain Keller who had better control over his men in the army than he does with his family. He appears cold and uncaring at first but eventually thaws out to show his joy at the transformation of Helen. Kristen Wetherington plays Kate Keller, the over protective mother of a blind child. She delivers the goods as this angst ridden mother who only wants the best for her child. I last reviewed Kristen as Louise in "Gypsy" here last summer. Playing Kate's stepson James is Joseph DePietro who must deal with his father's constant anger at him until near the end of the play he changes from the mouse to the lion who roars when he proclaims that his father isn't always right. Joseph's comic asides during the earlier part of the show keep it from becoming too somber. He also has a reconciliation scene with Kate when he apologizes to her that is a poignant moment. Another family member is Aunt Ev portrayed by Jennifer Mischley who does on and feeds into Helen's misbehavior at the table. Staci Morin plays Viney, the maid who has comic one liners. Her two children are well played by Jerry Carino and Brooke Lee Ann Boisvert. Rounding out the cast is Jonathan Fisher as the Doctor and Mr. Anagnos. 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.