The Miracle Worker
About five and a half years ago, friends insisted I go see a production of Bye Bye Birdie at the far West County YMCA, 17 miles from home, in the dead of winter, but only because I would see what a great new director they'd brought in. This seemed very odd and puzzling to me (stage is, after all, the "actor's medium" isn't it?), but I went anyway. And my friends were right. Every move, every inflection (and there were approximately a million of each) seemed to be authentically created for fresh and quite unknown actors, who'd have otherwise turned invisible the moment they walked on stage. And yet, the director (Mr. Hurley) never actually seemed to be herding cattle, the way a few directors around town do now and then.
Now the cast of Miracle Worker could probably do a respectable job with any director in the canvas chair, especially with this version's fiercely dedicated Annie Sullivan (the excellent Julia Mancini). But, thanks mostly to Mr. Hurley, we are swept into a hopeless dark along with little Helen Keller (Marissa Roman) and eventually, thrillingly, into the light.
The Miracle Worker, we should also note, is a tight, smart, funny play (which also requires a lot of "chorus players," thus making it perfect for Mr. Hurley). Growing up in the 1970s, I was introduced to the black and white film with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in school: Ms. Bancroft won an Oscar for her role, and before that, a Tony in William Gibson's play. And here, on an appropriately colorless set, a new Keller family wrestles with their deaf and blind daughter, and with their own protectiveness, with fine results. Eleven-year-old Miss Roman does a very good job using her hands and feet to "see," and her most crucial moments ring very true. Her big fight at the dinner table with Ms. Mancini is a fine spectacle, worthy of a spot on "WEC" (the blood-spattered wrestling show on the Versus channel). Likewise, their famous final scene at the water pump is a huge victory and a sincere relief.
There are also several directors in this town (and probably in your town, too) who occasionally suffer from "Great Director Syndrome": the wild notion that they can put just anybody on stage and make them interesting, regardless of wit or acquired wisdom. And this caprice is often proven horribly wrong. But Mr. Hurley has shown repeatedly that he can make novices interesting, and spur on the well-qualified, and we are constantly rewarded with clear relationships and brisk true characters, even when a couple of the actors occasionally lose focus or confidence. No novice himself, Robert King (as Captain Keller) has many splendid moments, but he was frequently flummoxed as the patriarch on opening night. Nevertheless, he was smoothly accommodated by those playing his family and employees. But it's strange because there is otherwise so much terrific presence in the man that it's a shock when he, too, suddenly finds himself lost in the darkness. Maybe it just runs in the Keller family.
Mrs. Keller (Catherine Crowder) somehow grows more and more touching and wonderful as the evening races by, and Jonathan Allen and Betsy Jones help to give the play a professional sheen as neglected older brother and haughty aunt. Jeanne Harvey, Dominique Jackson and seven-year-old Dillon Sansone easily carry the story in their roles. But the magical Hurley touch is especially evident in the many girls and young women (and one fellow, if memory serves) who each put such thoughtful measure into their appearances as blind schoolgirls or nightmarish "phantoms" throughout. Saso Cemerski (as a teacher and counselor) also brings perfect conviction to his "exit interview" with Miss Sullivan up in Boston, and Kirk Sayles does nicely as the family doctor down in Alabama.
Through August 3, 2008 at the new South Campus of Washington University (the former CBC High School building) on Clayton Rd. just east of Big Bend Blvd. Parking is adjacent to the west wing. For more information, call (314) 721-9228 or visit the Clayton Community Theatre online at www.placeseveryone.org.
-- Richard T. Green