By Philip Pearce
THE MIRACLE WORKER by William Gibson has become an American theater classic, and no wonder. Premiered at the tail end of the 1950s, long before producers felt any real pressure to search out scripts about strong women, Gibson’s play features two iron-willed females in historic and often violent physical conflict.
One of the combatants is a half-blind twenty-year-old teacher named Annie Sullivan, the other is her blind, deaf and dumb pupil Helen Keller. Their story lit up Broadway and the West End and went on to a screen adaptation that earned Oscars for Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
Justin Matthew Gordon directs the new Western Stage production of The Miracle Worker with his usual clarity and pace. The story is never allowed to slow down, the character conflicts have an in-your-face immediacy that suits the Studio Theater and a work about a woman who brings light out of darkness, order out of chaos.
Much of the power of Gibson’s script comes from its refusal to romanticize either the six-year-old Helen Keller or her one-track, determined young governess. Little Helen may be a medical and psychological victim, but she ruthlessly uses her multiple handicaps to snatch whatever she wants from her confused, compliant family.
Colette Gsell gives a remarkable and shocking reality to the role of this small, tormented little domestic monster. Faced with acting blind on stage most players resort to groping and stumbling their way around the set. Gsell and Gordon have the insight to realize that six years of darkness in a single setting have left quick-witted Helen as sure of herself when it comes to stairs, furniture and doorways as she is when she’s digging greedy fingers into everybody’s dinner plate, flinging toys around the parlor and smacking family members who vainly try to thwart her. It’s only when Annie Sullivan starts the work of turning this wild-haired tyrant into a recognizable human child that Gsell’s Helen begins to seriously grope and stumble.
Among the four different actresses I’ve seen in the role of Annie Sullivan, Chelsea Simmons is the most likeable. Other performers have tended to emphasize the character’s undoubted function as a hard-nosed disciplinarian. Simmons allows her youth and vulnerability at times to break through Annie’s tough pride. But when push comes to shove, she sets off the fireworks effectively, especially in her violent battle to force the screaming Helen to eat with knife, fork and napkin at the end of Act 1.
This newest Annie Sullivan may be a shade too nice but I particularly like the air of hope she brings to her late if futile efforts to make Helen link those American Sign Language finger contortions she performs with such ease not with a game but with real objects like a wooden stool and real experiences like love. Where other performances to make this battle look like Annie’s struggle to win a victory for herself, Simmons makes it clear the victory she is hoping for is only Helen’s.
Annie’s arrival at the Keller Alabama home is, of course, also a challenge to the family who have allowed all the bickering and chaos to happen. Helen’s father, Civil War Captain Keller (Noah Luce) is all military bluster and explosions of frustration. Her mother Kate (Sara England) on the other hand smothers her daughter with sentimental pity that only bolsters the child’s screaming self will. Elder brother James (JT Taylor) is the same generation as Annie and finds her self-assurance a niggling judgment on his own airy submission to a domineering father. Straight-laced Aunt Ev (Kelly Hendrix) is a stickler for the social niceties, whereas Denisha Ervin as African American cook and maid Viney seems to be the only member of the Keller home team who shares at least a bit of Annie’s insight, drive and gumption.
This quintet of players do a spirited job of differentiating their character traits of the Keller household, but with what I felt was too strong an emphasis early on, particularly by Luce in the key role of the Colonel, to overplay the comedy. Luce is fascinating to watch as he erupts in firecrackers of rage and outbursts of half-baked opinions. But he possibly pushes the others in his clan into a group buffoonery that weakens the impact of young James’s later rebellion against a man who has always made him feel small and impotent. It’s only when the Colonel and Kate negotiate with Annie Sullivan about a daring ultimate attack on Helen’s darkness that they veer away from caricature and become believable people worthy of our sympathy and support.
By way of contrast, it was good to watch Paul McCormack, usually such a dab hand with comedy characters, resonating as Annie Sullivan’s cautious but wise mentor Mr Anagnos.
Critics in the past have differed on the value of a series of voice and sound images Gibson adds to Annie’s mental struggles to work out a strategy for dealing with the Kellers. These incidents are, principally, appearances by the kid brother Jimmy who died when he and Annie were both sent, like characters from Dickens, to a sordid nineteenth century workhouse. Some have felt such flashbacks complicate a plot that ought to focus directly on here-and-now Annie-Helen events. To me they provide, if well staged, an acceptable deepening of Annie’s strong motivation to help Helen.
At Western Stage, however, they are presented with spooky ‘red lighting’ that I feel detracts from their pathos and with an echo-chamber effect that distorts what is being said. Of course at my time of life, that kind of hearing problem goes with the territory. But another patron in the front row who is about half my age confided that he only got about half of what the spooky voice was talking about.
But it’s a compelling script and a good production. It continues in The Western Stage Studio Theater through June 22.
Photo by Richard Green