By CHRISTA MORLETTI McINTYRE
The Miracle Worker was first performed more than half a century ago, and while critics were sharp to illustrate its production flaws, it won the hearts of audiences. Even now, most Americans are familiar with the deaf and mute firecracker Helen Keller, who rewrote the map on how disability is perceived: when we think of the play, we think of her. And as we huddle in and batten down the hatches to celebrate the warmth of family and friends during the holidays, Artists Repertory Theater is producing a real-life miracle.
The famous premiere production of the play and the movie based on it were hailed for the strong acting by Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan, Helen’s teacher and companion, and Patty Duke as Helen. Hollywood streamlined the movie, and playwright William Gibson was disappointed that the tense subplots of the stage version were left out. Artists Repertory’s The Miracle Worker stays true to Gibson’s original script, and Dámaso Rodriguez’s direction brings out the many skills of a diverse and accomplished cast.
That brightness extends to the whole production. On opening night the audience was a buzz in the foyer, and the excitement was contagious. We descended in a single line into the box of the theater, leaving the real world and suspending our belief. Artists Rep’s stage – scenic design is by Tim Stapleton, props by Will Bailey, lighting by Kristeen Willis Crosser, costumes by Bobby Brewer-Wallin – is its own world for this show: delicately lit on three levels of squares balanced by a contrast of golden yellow and royal blue. A thick Southern air and the sound of flycatchers fill the room. To the back of the stage hangs a simple floral curtar in, not overdone, but elegantly implied. On center is a wicker baby’s cradle, and to the left, a country doctor’s old leather clutch. Off to the right, not easily noticed, an old hand water well stands; hanging from its spout is a nickel bucket, with a soft and metallic smell. The stage feels like Alabama, where the action takes place, but it’s not a recreation of an actual home.
The young actor Agatha Olson’s first scene onstage as Helen is powerful, and her performance grows over the evening. Helen’s mother, Kate (Amy Newman), coddles her, allowing her to act however she pleases. And Helen’s a bit of a wild child. Her gait is an off-step march as she makes her way around the dinner table, eating off her family members’ plates with her hands, food spilling from her mouth. Kate believes that she is giving Helen the freedom to live the best life possible, but Helen knows little of how to function in the world. She’s prone to tantrums: she lives within the prison of her own body, unable to communicate any of her self to the world or hear how the world sees her. During the first dinner scene, Helen has a violent outburst and hits her head on the table. Olson’s acting is so real and palpable, the opening night audience gasped at the horror of her pain, and some had their first tears of the night. Olson’s interpretation of Helen hits the mark perfectly. Her Helen is boxed up and unable to participate in the life around her. She shows remarkably well how a person who is deaf and mute would act without the tools to show her personality; all of the edges of her acting show a knowledge of disability. Olson’s Helen is seething with independence and intelligence, on hold for the moment she will have her dignity restored.
Helen’s mother is a long-suffering Penelope, trying by any means to find help for her child. She’s the younger and more recent wife to Captain Keller (Don Alder). Newman’s Kate is broken-hearted, but not broken-spirited. As a Southern woman, she has a place in the home when decisions are made, but her husband’s love and compassion always give way to Kate’s requests. Gibson’s writing takes the sorrow of a distraught family and balances it out with the humor based on the actual people in Helen Keller’s life. Alder’s Captain Keller is staunch, reminiscent of Clarence Day in Life with Father. He pretends to not be invested in what’s happening at home, to have his great work to do at the newspaper, and to find daily life interactions irritating. Yet his common-sense approach is insightful to the unwinding of the story, and gives the audience some good-hearted perspective and laughs. Joshua J. Weinstein plays James, Captain Keller’s elder son by a previous marriage. There’s some static in the air between James and his newly parceled-out family. Captain Keller of the old guard is trying to make James a man by tough love and little affection. James takes his neglect out on Helen, the center of Keller family life, and on Kate, the replacement mother he did not agree to. This running story adds to the gravity of the play that we miss in other versions. James plays an important role as he transforms, which helps Helen unknowingly.
After many attempts, Captain Keller has given up on finding any medical help for Helen. Kate has heard of a school in Massachusetts, which may be the family’s saving grace. Reluctantly, Captain Keller agrees, and a Miss Annie Sullivan takes a long train ride to the Keller’s home in Alabama. Newman’s Kate, much like Helen and Sullivan and many other women of the time, relies upon a repressed intelligence. Newman’s subtle posturing and pained expressions give a glimpse into her inner struggles.
Gibson’s play draws heavily from Keller and Sullivan’s autobiographies, and while the play is more of a snapshot of their early life together, their stories are more complicated. Val Landrum plays Annie Sullivan not as a battle axe out to reform the feral Helen, but as a character more rounded and true. Newman is statuesque, and her Annie is full of well-earned pride. She has dimension and feeling, while at the same time she’s on a rescue mission and must remain in her place as a teacher. Sullivan was also blind, and after a series of operations regained part of her sight for a while. She grew up in an illiterate Irish family, and after her mother’s death, Annie and her brother, James, were sent to an asylum. James died from a tubercular hip, and Annie’s inability to save him from misery and death has stolen part of her soul. The cotton curtain, covered with small white flowers, serves as a backdrop for the Keller home and also as the psychic wall of Annie’s painful memories. It’s cleverly used as a shadow theater,and Annie’s flashbacks of James’s last days on earth form a well-composed visual agony.
Through her force of personality, Annie escaped the horrors of the ward and became valedictorian of Perkins School for the Blind, which sent her as a teacher for Helen. Annie and Helen’s lives will mirror each other’s, and one person’s triumph is a triumph for both. Gibson’s understanding of Helen and Annie shines through: they are opposite sides of the same coin; both whip-smart and independent. Annie’s role in Helen’s early life is not just to help her, it’s also Annie’s chance for “God to give her another resurrection.” Annie sees Helen on a fundamental level her family can’t. She sees the promise locked up inside of Helen. Landrum plays Annie sensitively as a modern Yankee woman who has no time for frivolous niceties. Alder and Landrum have a unique chemistry, and their witticisms flesh out the play and save it from being just a tragedy. Annie is an Irish firebrand, and her silver tongue is a delightful reminder of how a nice retort can save many tense conversations.
Both Helen and Annie have sealed off their trust in living, and it will take ingenuity and perseverance for them to learn how to rely on each other. In one of the play’s more impressive moments, Helen knocks out one of Annie’s teeth. Landrum soldiers on as the blood seethes from her mouth and she can barely find enough towels to contain the flood. This moment brings Artists Rep’s production out from under the college eaves and puts Gibson’s writing back in its rightful place, as a great American play.
Before Helen had “an acute congestion of the stomach and brain” at 19 months, she was speaking her first word, the word for water. Gibson, Rodriguez and the design crew at Artists Rep carefully weave this metaphor through the play. Helen’s first word transforms into a well, a pitcher needing to be filled, the first hand-spelled word that will break through her wall of silence and become the healing redemptive image that washes over the Keller family and Annie Sullivan. By the end, at the famous scene where discipline creates the moment Helen steps back into the world, the opening-night audience had its own resurrection. Tears flowed like water.
Artists Rep’s The Miracle Worker continues through January 10. Ticket and schedule information are here.