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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

The Miracle Worker
Hale Centre Theatre

Also see Gil's review of Young Frankenstein


Melody Knudson, Richard Enriquez, Clara Moffitt and Emily Mohney
William Gibson's classic play The Miracle Worker tells the true story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, two women who unfortunately aren't as well known today as they were back when the play first premiered on Broadway, in 1959. Keller, probably the world's most famous blind person, became a world famous author, speaker and champion of the disabled, and by doing so made the world better for people with disabilities, and Sullivan is the woman who helped Helen realize her potential when she was just a very young girl. So, while their names might not be that well known by young people today, the play is a fascinating reminder of their touching story and struggles they both overcame. The Hale Centre Theatre is presenting an exceptional production with brilliant performances by Clara Moffitt and Emily Mohney as Helen and Annie.

Set in 1880s rural Alabama, The Miracle Worker begins when Helen loses her sight, hearing and speech through a dangerous illness in infancy. Lost in her world, she grows up and fights against those who love her, to be understood by them, while she attempts to understand the world around her. Her family, thinking that over-indulging her is the right approach to helping her, watches as she grows up to be an out of control 6 year old with no boundaries. After Helen knocks her younger sibling out of its crib, Helen's mother Kate decides that finding a qualified teacher and guardian is what Helen needs. After contacting the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, Annie Sullivan is hired and over the course of the play we see how Annie breaks through to Helen to teach her manners and show her that everything has a name and those names can be identified by spelling words into Helen's hand.

Director Diedra Celeste Miranda has done an excellent job of balancing the drama and comedy in the play and of getting the majority of her actors to deliver top notch performances that very rarely approach melodrama. With an impeccable Irish accent, Emily Mohney plays Annie beautifully. It is a realistic performance that shows the spirited, feisty woman who doesn't shy away from the frustration she encounters as she is bound and determined to teach Helen. Clara Moffitt is also giving a performance you won't soon forget, as Helen. Completely convincing and just a 5th grader, Moffitt exhibits striking acting skills in her portrayal of Helen. She is not afraid to show us this angry, confused girl who only acts out as she is frustrated and lost in her own world. Equally as impressive is Melody Knudson as Helen's concerned mother Kate. Knudson's sheer sense of determination and compassion is extraordinary. All three actresses are giving some of the strongest, most vivid performances in the Phoenix area this summer.

Since Gibson's play is more focused on the three main female characters, the male characters have less to do and are somewhat underwritten. While Richard Enriquez and Connor Wanless are fine as Helen's father and older half-brother, neither gets the range of emotions or dialogue equal to the parts of Helen, Annie or Kate. Still, Enriquez manages somewhat to show us a father who doesn't quite know what to make of Annie's unorthodox teaching style. and Wanless does a nice job of portraying a man whose father doesn't give him much credit and so he must learn to stand up for himself. Brooke Andrews, Ned Peterson, Charlotte Strayhorne and Brach Drew round out the cast, with each one making nice contributions.

Miranda stages the action effectively in the round, staging scenes throughout the space with plenty of movement to ensure the audience hardly ever has an actor's back to them. She also uses the staircase from the corner second story platform effectively, especially in the pronounced way that Helen's initial entrance immediately shows us the issues a blind and deaf person faces. While, overall, Miranda's direction of her actors and the story is impressive, there is the inherent confusion of the script's few, brief flashback sequences that Gibson never fully fleshes out and an occasional lapse or two into melodrama, but those are just very small bumps in an otherwise exceptional production.

With a vast collection of period perfect furniture and cut-out, see-through doors and walls to delineate the rooms of the Keller home, the scenic design by Brian Daily and Dave Dietlein is quite striking. With the majority of the set pieces permanently in place, it also means swift scene changes, since rarely anything needs to be moved to set up the next scene. Jeff Davis' lighting design is efficient with some nice effects, though a strange strobe light effect used when Helen's parents first discover her handicaps is a bit exaggerated. With a never-ending parade of period and character perfect dresses, skirts, suits, vests, coats and hats, the costume designs by Mary Atkinson are exquisite. Evocative sound effects and a nice musical underscoring of scene changes and the dramatic and light hearted moments are nice additions that complement the production.

Touching and heartwarming with passionate performances, the Hale Centre Theatre's production of The Miracle Worker is extremely impressive, with three rich, memorable performances and solid direction. The play and this production are faithful and poignant tributes to the legacy of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.

The Hale Centre Theatre production of The Miracle Worker runs through July 5th, 2014, with performances at 50 W. Page Avenue in Gilbert. Tickets can be ordered at www.haletheatrearizona.com or by calling (480) 497-1181.

Director: Diedra Celeste Miranda
Set Technical Director: Brian Daily
Scenic Design: Brian Daily and Dave Dietlein
Costume Designer: Mary Atkinson
Lighting Designer: Jeff Davis
Props/Scenic Artists: Monica Christiansen and Laura Hawkes
Wigs/Make-Up: Cambrian James
Stage Manager: Justin Peterson
Video Artist: Adam DeVaney
Producers: David and Corrin Dietlein

Cast:
Helen Keller: Clara Moffitt
Annie Sullivan: Emily Mohney
Kate Keller: Melody Knudson
Captain Keller: Richard Enriquez
James: Connor Wanless
Aunt Ev: Brooke Andrews
Anaganos / Doctor: Ned Peterson
Viney: Charlotte Strayhorne
Percy: Brach Drew


Photo: Nick Woodward / Hale Centre Theatre

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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