Reviewed by George Basler
When The Miracle Worker opened on Broadway in 1959, it was a smash hit and made immediate stars of Patty Duke as the young Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft as her teacher, Anne Sullivan. More than 50 years later, the play remains an emotional tour de force with great popular appeal.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why. The true story of how Sullivan used the power of language and a “tough love” approach to unlock the mind of the deaf and blind Keller is one of the most inspirational stories of modern times.
The Ti-Ahwaga Community Players in Owego are staging the play through April 21 as the fourth production of their 2012-13 season. While offering no starting new insights, the production is thoughtfully done, well staged and deeply moving in parts. However, it could have used a little more ferocity and falls just short of conveying the complete visceral intensity of William Gibson’s play.
To be honest, the Gibson play is showing its age — cracks that have been pointed out by critics over the years.
Keller and Sullivan’s characters are vividly drawn, but the other characters are under-written, to put it mildly. A subplot involving the inner dynamics of the Keller family — a blustering father, a kind but bland mother and a son struggling to stand up to an overbearing patriarch — has a paint-by-numbers feel.
And the flashback scenes in which Sullivan remembers the death of her brother Jimmie, who was crippled by polio, and the horrors of her life in an orphanage can be confusing to anyone not familiar with Sullivan’s life story.
Ti-Ahwaga director Linda Fenescey deserves credit for staging the flashback scenes in an effective way, far more effective than the staging I remember from the movie and the original production. (Yes, I am old enough to have seen the original.) Fenescey also does a good job incorporating the Keller family into the action of the play, although she can’t do much to overcome the cardboard nature of the characters.
That being said, The Miracle Worker succeeds or fails based on the performances of the two leads who recreate the relationship between the 20-year-old Sullivan and seven-year-old Keller. And both Courtney Bennett as Sullivan and Laura Jackson as Keller do fine jobs.
Bennett, a recent graduate of the theater program at SUNY-Oswego, brings a steely resolve to the character of Sullivan. Her character is almost cold-blooded toward Keller at the beginning of the play, as if Sullivan is hardened by past heartbreaks and struggling to keep her emotions in check. That makes her connection with Keller at the end of the play all the more effective.
Bennett is most impressive in the third act as Sullivan agonizes over her inability, at that point, to teach Keller language, which she knows will unlock the mind of the knowledge-starved young girl.
Jackson, who is a local student, stays in character perfectly as the blind, deaf girl. She does a remarkably good job in catching the intelligence that lies buried inside the young Keller. However, Jackson doesn’t quite catch the inner torment and almost animalistic fury of Keller as she feels trapped inside her dark world.
Then again, the entire production is a bit tame. For example, one of the dramatic highlights of The Miracle Worker has always been the knock-down, drag-out breakfast confrontation when Sullivan, through physical force, gets Keller to eat off a plate. But, while spoons get thrown in the Ti-Ahwaga production, the two actors hold back from throwing themselves completely into the battle. They never really go to the mat, and the low-key approach dissipates the scene’s power.
The two leads are more effective in the quiet scenes in which Sullivan, through touch and sign language, works to unlock Keller’s dark world. And the final scene, when Helen says her first halting word, retains its power.
Before ending the review, salute should be given to Todd Smith, Nicole Langton, Austin Brocious and Carolyn Christy-Boyden who do solid jobs in the thankless roles of the Keller family.
Langton is especially touching as the mother who realizes she must give up her daughter to a stranger for the child to have any chance of salvation. This act of selfless love is never really developed by Gibson, however, as the focus stays squarely on Keller and Sullivan.
The set design by Laura Johnson and the lighting by Randy Kerr, Rion Kerr and Asa Kerr are first-rate.
All in all, the Ti-Ahwaga Community Players turned in another a fine effort that, despite some flaws, is definitely worthwhile seeing. For parents with older children and adolescents, it’s a great introduction to live theater.
IF YOU GO: The Ti-Ahwaga Performing Arts Center is located at 42 Delphine St., Owego. Future performances of The Miracle Worker are April 12-14 and April 19-21. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m. Tickets are $18 ($10 for students with ID on Fridays and $15 for ages 60 and over on Sundays). For tickets, call the box office at 607-687-2130.