Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Soaring The Miracle Worker
The 1959 play is based on Helen Keller's 1903 autobiography. It begins on a fateful night in 1882 on the Keller homestead in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Nineteen-month-old Helen is very sick. The doctor diagnoses her illness as "acute congestion of the stomach and brain" (likely, meningitis or scarlet fever). As her fever subsides, Helen's mother realizes that Helen can no longer see or hear. All efforts to find a medical cure for Helen in the ensuing five years end in failure. The Kellers contact the Parsons Institute for the Blind in Boston.
The scene shifts to Boston where, in response to contacts with the Kellers, the Institute's Dr. Anagnos has arranged to send 20-year-old Annie Sullivan to work as teacher and nanny to Helen. Annie is a tormented but strong and determined young woman. At the age of ten, the legally blind Annie was sent to an alms house orphanage along with her little brother Jimmie. Jimmie died there. At age 14, Annie was transferred to the Parsons Institution where she had two operations which partially restored her vision. Caring for Helen Keller will be her first job.
Annie Sullivan finds Helen to be a totally willful, uncontrollable child. Helen's parents are unwilling to discipline their unfortunate child. Her father and young adult half brother are convinced that the child is unteachable and will have to be placed in a psychiatric institution. At meals, Helen is permitted to eat with her fingers, and take whatever she wants from anyone else's plate. Overcoming the family's strong opposition, Annie convinces the family to allow her to teach Helen table manners. After a physical battle lasting an entire morning, Annie succeeds in getting Helen to eat properly ("She folded her napkin"). The Keller family is most pleased. Annie Sullivan is not satisfied to have domesticated Helen. She is convinced that Helen has a good mind. It becomes her passion to find the key to unlocking it. Annie believes that Helen must be totally dependant upon her in order for her to succeed.
Annie convinces Helen's parents to give her a chance. So that Helen will not know that her family is close by, the Kellers take Helen for a long ride around the Tuscumbia countryside. They then bring her to a cottage on the grounds of their home where she will live alone with Annie for several weeks. Annie teaches Helen to finger spell, and Helen quickly learns to imitate Anne's finger movements. However, to Helen, it is just a game. Annie is convinced that getting Helen to realize that things have names will be the breakthrough that can open up the world to her.
There is a great deal of humor here. However, there is no sentimentality. Unlike much inspirational literature, The Miracle Worker is hard edged, drawing its steel from the no-nonsense personality of Annie Sullivan. Speaking softly with a lilt of an Irish accent and carrying herself with ramrod straight bearing, Annika Boras quietly establishes that Annie Sullivan is a young woman of unshakeable will. As interpreted by Boras, Annie has been to hell and back, but she has conquered her demons and is solidly centered.
Meredith Lipson (who is alternating with Lily Maketansky) wordlessly displays a full gamut of emotions and partakes in highly physical action while unerringly sustaining the unfocused expression and body language which seem reflective of the blind. While her Helen is mostly rough and tumble, Lipson positively glows when depicting Helen's joyous breakthrough. While Lipson's work easily stands on its own merits, there is no reason not to be note that she is a 10-year-old fifth grader (Patty Duke was twelve when she opened on Broadway in this role).
John Hickok and Emily Dorsch give well nuanced performances as Captain and Kate Keller, Helen's parents. Hickok deftly avoids making a villain out of the unhappy, difficult and overly class-conscious Keller. Surely, no one should sign on to marriage and parenthood without being prepared for the possibility of tragedy, but when you're an older man with grown children married to a younger second wife, it can particularly vexing. In the early scenes, Hickok makes it clear that he wants to do right by his wife and Helen, but after almost five years of unsuccessfully seeking cures for Helen, he is at the end of his tether. Dorsch displays the turmoil that is inevitable in a wife and mother wanting to do right by her children (Helen has a baby sister, Mildred), but whose ability to act is totally dependent on the decision of an overbearing and unhappy husband. Will Fowler as Keller's immature adult son who in finding a cause finds himself, and Beth Dixon as Keller's interfering sister, Aunt Ev, bring vitality to stock roles. Cherelle Cargill as the Keller cook, Viney; Elijah Isaiah Cook as her son, Percy; and Stuart Zagnit in two brief but pivotal roles make solid contributions.
The roles of several of Anne Sullivan's close classmates, her late brother Jimmy, and Viney's daughter Martha, have been eliminated, but, as best as I can judge, there is little lost and likely something gained.
Director Susan Fenichell has brought a fresh eye to the proceedings, and, in the process, revitalized The Miracle Worker. For one thing, Fenichell has downplayed the dark demons that haunted Annie Sullivan. Surely, we hear the voice of her late brother Jimmie, and there are projections that depict her dark state of mind as she heads from Boston to Tuscumbia. However, I believe that her memories of Jimmie, along with her no longer present classmates, are given short shrift here. This considerably brightens matters. Would more emphasis on the dark side make the play more cathartic? Maybe, but the balance of elements here seems just right. In fact, Annie's all-consuming drive to reach Helen makes it logical for her to leave her demons behind her early on. The famous physical battle between Helen and Annie during which Anne teaches Helen to eat from her own plate employing utensils is choreographed with slam bang theatricality. Still here, it seems more natural and less over the top in its violence than it has been in other productions which I have seen (as well as in the 1961 film adaptation). The effects of these directorial choices are to provide a smoother flow to the story and to allow the conflicts within the Keller family more room to breathe and engage us.
Additionally, employing the essential artistry of set designer David Zinn, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, and projection designer Jan Hartley, Fenichell has staged the play on an extremely clever and evocative brightly lit series of integrated sets which smoothly enter from the rear and both sides of the stage, along with moving panels, and are supplemented by full stage projections, both digital film and photographs. All of this gives the Paper Mill The Miracle Worker an eye appealing cinematic flow which enhances the pace and excitement of the story. After all, should not the Alabama home and yard of the somewhat prosperous Kellers be brightly lit and inviting on a sunny morning? And the exceptionally clever design for the cottage to which Anne and Helen retreat is a marvel of simplicity and effectiveness. The smooth integration of all its elements belies the design's complexity.
A last word, but an important one. I cannot think of any play that would make a better introduction to the theatre for a child than The Miracle Worker. If you have any children close to you who you think are ready to be introduced to theatre, please bring them to this fine production. The story is moving and profound, yet it is easy to follow and understand. The physicality of the performance is exciting. The sets and projections are cinematic and eye pleasing. I am confident that many years from now, there will be dedicated adult theatergoers saying, "The first play that I ever saw was The Miracle Worker at the Paper Mill Playhouse". My ______ took me." If you have the opportunity to fill your name in above, you will be happy that you did.
The Miracle Worker continues performances (Eves: Wed., Thurs., Sun. 7:30 / Fri., Sat. 8 p.m.; Mats: Thurs., Sat., Sun. 2 p.m.) through February 24, 2008 at the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
The Miracle Worker by William Gibson; directed by Susan Fenichell