The Miracle Worker
When William Gibson died last year, his New York Times obituary included a passage taken from an old interview with Arthur Pennwho directed the original television version of "The Miracle Worker," the Tony-winning Broadway production, and the subsequent filmin which Penn quotes Gibson as calling his initial story concept a dance narrative between Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. Using a factual skeleton of events taken partly from Miss Keller's autobiography and partly from Miss Sullivan's letters, Gibson choreographed a brilliant pas de deux that begins as overwhelmingly physical, violent and chaotic and becomes stable, orderly, mutually rewarding and richly emotional. When it came to placing this dance sequence in context, on the other hand, his inspiration gave way to necessity, and the result is a play with two distinct and not always compatible story lines.
There are few scenes in modern drama as brilliantly conceived and developed as the familiar core passages in this play, in which teacher and unwilling pupil do battle. The feral intensity of Helen's resistance is utterly convincing and absorbing, and the truly heroic determination of Annie to liberate the soul alive in this monstrous child is captured with impressive dramatic force. The dinner table scene is still breathtaking theater after sixty years, and the physical power of the finger games with which Annie teaches the concept of language is still surprising. Most of all, though, it is the carefully crafted unfolding of Helen's awareness, and of the consequent affection between pupil and teacher, that makes this play a true classic.
On the other hand, the balance between this central narrative and the back story of Helen Keller's family is awkward. The father, Captain Keller, is pompous, ungainly and often inscrutable in his relationships with his son and with the daughter he thinks of as beyond help; and the misguided, helpless mother speaks in one-dimensional chichés. There is an aunt who wanders uncomfortably through the proceedings without any clear effect on anything. The introductory scenes add very little to our understanding of Helen's predicament or of Annie's that is not amply evident in their subsequent meeting.
The current production of The Miracle Worker at the Rep struggles with the play's clumsier moments, but director Susan Gregg brings the virtuoso passages to dazzling life, with the help of brilliant performances from Amy Landon, as Annie, and Hannah Ryan, who alternates with Olivia Jane Prosser as Helen. Young Miss Ryan, especially, deserves every handclap of the standing ovation with which her opening night performance was greeted; her commitment to the role seems complete, and her technique is mature far beyond her years. Like Shaw's St. Joan, Annie Sullivan must sell herself to a skeptical patron, and, like Joan, she does it by the unwavering force of her convictions. Miss Landon captures to perfection the fiery obstinacy and the redeeming heart that the role demands.
Technically, this production is polished and efficient; John Ezell's set is well designed and carefully built, James Scott's costumes are unobtrusively in character and of the period, and Michael Phillip's lighting, which plays a major part in scene changes, is excellent.
Everything in Gibson's choreography and Gregg's direction points toward the moment of breakthrough at the water pump, which is still literally thrilling, but in a wider sense it was in the life-long partnership of the two women that the miracle was fully revealed. Mark Twain, who first dubbed Annie Sullivan a miracle worker and supplied the tuition which enabled Annie and Helen to attend Radcliffe, would certainly have approved of Gibson's choreography of the beginning of that dance. The Rep has given us a production of it that theatergoers of all ages can enjoy.
The Miracle Worker will run through March 8 on the Browning Mainstage at the Rep; for ticker information, call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.