The Miracle Worker
nytheatre.com review by Scott Mendelsohn
January 27, 2008
"At another time she asked, 'what is a soul?' 'No one knows', I replied; 'but we know it is not the body, and it is that part of us which thinks and loves and hopes...[and] is invisible...' 'But if I write what my soul thinks', she said, 'then it will be visible, and the words will be its body.'"
- Annie Sullivan, 1891
The above quote is used as an epigram in his script of The Miracle Worker, and what Annie Sullivan wrote to her pupil is just as true of plays in the theatre. A writer finds a subject that emerges from our collective soul; his or her writing finds a form that unmistakably embeds itself in our shared imagination, like an icon. The power is palpable as any cast reads the script aloud; the power in the story inspires them to transcend their limitations. Put them in the mouths and bodies of real artist, and these plays are branded into our experience.
The Miracle Worker is such a play. By telling the unique story of Helen Keller and her indomitable 20-year-old teacher, playwright William Gibson articulates the most universal mysteries of human existence. How does a child's mind, cut off by sight and sound, arrange her sense of touch and other senses into an understanding of intention, and of membership in the human community? How does a 20-year-old immigrant, traumatized and nearly blind herself, come to break through cognitive barriers that had never been breached? The story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan is an epic tale, a singular combat of two people to overcome their own damaged human nature. Yet it also embodies the central, archetypal struggle between any parent or teacher who seeks to open the eyes of a child.
In the title role, Annika Boras unflinchingly commands our attention, much as the real Annie Sullivan commanded the attention of her pupil. The character's determination sings in every precise, contained movement that Boras makes. Her presence is potent enough to hold our attention against large stage-sized projections. And when she stands up to Helen's tyrannical father, she gracefully summons the instinctual craftiness which is required for young Annie to convince him to support the unorthodox approach she takes with her charge. Her performance is worthy of the heroic character she portrays.
As Helen Keller, Meredith Lipson remains touchingly trapped in her own world. [Editor's Note: Lipson alternates in the role with Lily Maketansky.] Because I know the story so well, the famous struggles didn't surprise me. Yet that familiarity gave those same scenes a sense of ritual that may ultimately have underlined some of the central arguments of the play. As originally played on Broadway and in the film by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, the famous breakfast scene was bestial, with Annie struggling to get an untamed beast to sit in her chair and use a spoon. Here the scene seems more obviously choreographed; but what fight director J. Steven White loses in animal energy may benefit the production as a whole by finding a little more space to focus on Annie's intellectual inquiries into the nature of mind, language, and family.
If there is a flaw in the writing of the play, it's in Gibson's depiction of the Keller family. Their story lines are clearly outlined, and the plot is reasonably well-crafted. But the characters tend to fade into the background. They have the essential materials they need, but it's up to the actors to dig deep enough to stand alongside the mythic archetypes of Annie and Helen. As Mrs. Keller, Emily Dorsch successfully creates a sheltered Southern woman who learns how to fight for her damaged child. Beth Dixon as Aunt Ev and Jordan Barrow as the servant boy Percy both make their marks. But neither John Hickok as Helen's father nor Will Fowler as her half-brother James seems to understand that his character is nearly as damaged as Helen herself. Captain Keller is a Southern patriarch whose identity collapsed with the loss of the Civil War, the loss of his first wife, and his utter powerlessness to help his new wife or his damaged daughter. In response, he has crushed the will of his son James, who struggles over the course of the play for the survival of his own spirit. Susan Fenichell's direction ensures that the men fulfill the necessary beats of Gibson's play, and the quality of the play brings better work out of the actors at the end than I expected from the rest of their performance. The actors, however, add little depth to their portrayals.
The design team delivers lovely, detailed work. David's Zinn's sets are a little over-complicated, given the many quick scene changes required, but Mary Louise Geiger's lighting radiates warmth, especially in a gorgeous tableau in the second act. Jan Hartley's projections take us into Annie's mind for the expressionist flashbacks into the teacher's traumatic childhood. Her projection of the train station for Annie's arrival comes across slightly blurry and out of focus on the scrim, masterfully letting us share the view of Annie's damaged eyes for the important arrival scene. And the music of Randy Hansen's sound design perfectly sets the tone for every scene.
If at times the production errs on the side of efficiency, we should nevertheless thank the State Theater of New Jersey and this esteemed company of craftsmen for this production that brings the soul of the Gibson's play to a new generation.