The Lyric Stage production of The Miracle Worker has a lot to recommend it. First of all, the story of twenty year old Annie Sullivan's breakthrough with the deaf, blind and untamed Helen Keller has everything: it's real, it's dramatic and it matters. Secondly, William Gibson's stage play, as he originally wrote it, is highly theatrical, rich in language and very much the story of saving two lost souls, Annie's as well as Helen's.
I wish I could recommend the entire production as wholeheartedly. While the miracle of Helen's transformation is ably told, that of Annie herself is given short shrift. Julie Jirousek is a strong and handsome Annie Sullivan, but she doesn't plumb the depths of this troubled young woman who's so afraid to love. Sullivan suffered abandonment and deprivation and had already endured many painful operations to restore her own sight. Key to the unfolding of Helen's story is the fact that Annie and her younger brother, who succumbed to tuberculosis, were subjected to unspeakable horrors in an asylum before her rescue by a kind teacher and generous benefactress at the Perkins School for the Blind.
Part of Jirousek's handicap is the sparseness of this production. Perhaps this can be attributed to budget constraints more than directorial choices on the part of Courtney O'Connor, but for whatever reason, some of the richness of the theatrical telling is missing. We get one servant while the play calls for two servants, more children and a dog to round out the Keller household, all of whom both Helen and Annie interact with, as written, at various times for effective dramatic purpose.
Gibson also wrote a scene in which we see other children from the Perkins School send Annie off with a gift for Helen. These other young actors may have doubled in the original production as voices and images haunting Annie's troubled mind during her quest to set Helen free. The playwright leaves it to his interpreters how to realize this, but he indicates the effect should be significant enough that when Annie expects her demons to appear in the final moment of the play, and they don't, we're aware of this. A more dramatic use of lights and music, as well as some representation of these images, might help achieve this. Gibson deliberately allows us to see the scary depths of Annie's mind all the while we wonder what might be in Helen's.
Much as I like the look of the stark wooden platforms and the outline of the roof of a house, crucial scenes between Helen and Annie are played in confining spaces. A small balcony area representing Annie's bedroom isn't visually integrated with the rest of the set and provides little room for the physical exchanges that take place there.
But more damaging is the lack of space allotted for the famous 12-minute scene in which Annie teaches Helen to fold her napkin. The lesson involves much flinging about of spoons, chairs and scrambled eggs as teacher and pupil out maneuver each other and battle for control. A supporting pole and low-hanging roof piece encroach upon the playing area, making the scene difficult to stage and worrisome for the audience, concerned for the safety of the two actresses.
Both O'Connor and Jirousek could mine the play for more of its humor, intended for the most part to point out the incongruity of Annie's placement as an employee in this very Southern household. Her eagerness to find a useful purpose in life and be able to support herself is almost undone by her stubborn Irish nature and youthful candor. Gibson was well aware of the clash of cultures and how very much out of place Miss Sullivan was in such a patriarchal society and family. Finding the humor would give Jirousek more colors to play and also add another level for the otherwise fine supporting players.
The Miracle Worker, presented by the Lyric Stage Company, runs through Feb. 2. Spiro Veloudus, Producing Artistic Director. 140 Clarendon St. (Copley Square), Boston, MA (in the YWCA Building) For tickets and information: (617) 437-7172 or online at www.lyricstage.com/