Helen Keller.  Annie Sullivan.

Few Americans can hear these names without recalling William Gibson’s Tony-winning The Miracle Worker. It’s been fifty years since the now classic biodrama debuted on Broadway, so long ago that to today’s theatergoers, it seems scarcely possible that there was a time before this extraordinary true story became part of our consciousness.  Few are those who have not seen either the Oscar-winning 1962 film or its two TV remakes (Patty Duke won the Oscar (and Tony) for playing Helen and the Emmy for playing Annie) or one of its countless school or community theater productions. Major professional revivals are less common, though, all the more reason to greet Joel Daavid’s powerful new production with excitement.

Director/designer Daavid’s The Miracle Worker debuted earlier this year at the Matrix in a two-month engagement which generated such rave reviews and sold-out houses that it has now reopened at the Edgemar Center For The Arts in Santa Monica to what is certain to be even more praise.

To begin with, Gibson’s drama is playwriting at its best.  Taking real people and real events and investing them with heart and humor and real suspense, The Miracle Worker tells a story that every parent and child, or teacher and student, can identify with. Born a fully normal child, Helen Keller contracted a brief but acute illness at the age of nineteen months which left her deaf and blind. Raised by parents who loved her deeply but did not know how to deal with this wild animal of a child, Helen was on the verge of being sent to an institution for the mentally defective when her desperate parents hired a 20-year-old named Annie Sullivan in a last-ditch effort to keep Helen by their sides.  Captain Arthur and Mrs. Kate Keller did not expect Sullivan to work miracles, nor did Annie, a recent graduate of a school for the blind. On the other hand, having herself lost her sight as a child and undergone nine operations to restore it, Annie could empathize with her pupil and see hope where Helen’s parents could see almost none.

If ever a production could be described as (insert director’s name here)’s production of (insert play’s title here), it is Joel Daavid’s production of The Miracle Worker.  The acclaimed designer has already won just about every award in the Los Angeles theater book for his scenic and lighting designs. With The Miracle Worker, he adds “directed by” to his bio, and a auspicious directorial debut this is. Not only is Daavid’s visual conception of the play beautifully achieved but he has inspired bravura performances from his actors as well.

Reprising their roles from the Matrix production are its two much lauded leads, Erin Christine Shaver as Annie and Carlie Nettles as Helen … and both are absolutely superb in two of the toughest roles ever written for young women.

Shaver captures all of Annie Sullivan’s spunk, determination, and good humor, making it eminently clear that even though scarcely out of her teens, Annie was well up to the task of not only teaching this most unique of pupils but also of standing up to Helen’s authoritarian father and her loving but overly indulgent mother.  Nettles, like many a young actress before her, performs the onstage miracle of making us believe that she neither sees nor hears a single thing around her.  Grasping for whatever is within reach, whether to guide herself around the family home, or out of hunger or simply childish selfishness, Nettles is nothing short of amazing in the role. As to the play’s most famous scene, a wordless nine-minute fight sequence during which Annie attempts to teach Helen to eat with a fork rather than with her hands, it is every bit as powerful as ever, and a feat of physical acting that will almost certainly be the most challenging and exhausting of either of the two actresses’ careers. 

Julie Austin Felder is a real standout in the role of Kate Keller, Helen’s young mother and Captain Keller’s second wife. Felder combines beauty, strength, and tenderness to create a fully three-dimensional wife, mother, and stepmother—driven to the point of near despair yet still clinging to hope. Stuart W. Howard does excellent work as the well-meaning but often ineffectual Captain Keller, whose attempts at wearing the pants in his family often fall flat, to amusing effect.  As James Keller, the Captain’s son by his first wife, Christopher Irving effortlessly steals scenes with his comic asides and peevish responses to just about any situation involving either father or stepmother.  As African American servant Viney, Tara Thomas observes and comments on every scene with delicious disapproval.  Marbry Steward has some very good scenes as Aunt Ev, and Trevor Murphy does well in brief scenes as infant Helen’s doctor and as Anagnos, Annie’s counselor at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, though some fake-looking sideburns and an overly heavy Greek accent tend somewhat to distract from the latter role. Theodore Mark Martinez, Sr. appears as a servant.

Completing the cast are some wonderful children: Brianna Hodge, Parrah Anise Grundy, Theodore Martinez, Jr., Alexandra Aaron, Lucy Angelo, Olivia Echegaray, Jacey Rose Gist, Emma Larson, and Camille Bellemarie Roberts.

Daavid’s scenic design is striking and detailed but not overly literal, thereby allowing scenes to move quickly and effortlessly from Helen’s bedroom to the family dining and living areas to the Keller home’s yard and garden house to Annie’s school.  Daavid’s lighting enhances the drama and power of every scene as do Peter Bayne’s sound design and mood-setting original music (much of the show is underscored like a movie, which adds greatly to the show’s emotional impact). Only a baby’s wails which seem to come from anywhere but the infant in question could be tweaked. Shon LeBlanc’s costumes are (what else from this master designer?) absolutely right for every character. 

The one director’s touch which works better in concept than in execution are the Judy Pisarro-Grant-choreographed dance sequences which accompany Annie’s nightmarish flashbacks to the time she and her deceased younger brother Jimmy spent in the asylum. Accompanying the voices in Annie’s nightmares are blind girls from Annie’s school doing rhythmic arm movements and body swaying.  The girls are a graceful and talented bunch, but for me at least, the ballets served as a distraction.  This is one case where there was no need to alter the original voices-only approach.

Other than that, though, this is a Miracle Worker which lives up to the rave reviews it earned during its earlier run.  It is a play which parents and children (eight years of age and up) can enjoy equally, one which moves, educates, entertains, and inspires.  When The Miracle Worker reaches its final, miraculous scene at the Kellers’ outdoor water pump, few eyes in the house will remain dry. Mine certainly didn’t. 

(Check out these amazing clips of the adult Helen Keller on youtube:

Edgemar Center For The Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
May 22, 2009

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