Miracle Worker Depicts Complex, Compelling Story
Paul Brissett, Duluth News Tribune
February 10, 2012
The simple story of how Annie Sullivan taught blind, deaf Helen Keller to communicate is, in fact, anything but simple. Its complexity is brilliantly depicted in UMD Theater’s production of The Miracle Worker, which opened Thursday in the Marshall Performing Arts Center.
The show features exquisite performances by the actresses in the two lead roles: Kate Zehr as Sullivan and Chelsea Reller as Helen. But the rest of the cast is stellar, too.
The script is by William Gibson, based on Keller’s autobiography. When Sullivan arrived from Boston at the Keller homestead in Alabama 20 years after the Civil War, she found Helen creating constant chaos with her purely instinctive ways of meeting her needs — for food, sweets, a parent’s embrace — which her family, hapless, indulged.
But Sullivan faced other obstacles as well, things not often related in the elementary-school version of the tale. She was haunted by memories of her own childhood in an asylum, where she lost her sight (later restored by multiple 19th century surgeries), and her brother died. She had to deal with Helen’s parents’ conflicting feelings about their daughter, with the strife between Captain Keller and his son, Helen’s half-brother, James, and with Old South attitudes toward servants and women.
Reller’s portrayal of a 5-year-old without even a concept of language is so relentlessly focused and convincing that it would be easy to overlook. But her communication of want, frustration, anger, fear, satisfaction and understanding using only her body and face is — if considered for even a moment — amazing.
Zehr’s Sullivan is mesmerizing, one of the finest performances on the UMD stage in the past dozen years. Slender and erect, with a complete arsenal of smiles, from snarky to joyous, and a credible and consistent Irish lilt to her speech, Zehr radiates Sullivan’s passion and tenacity.
A pivotal, powerful and funny scene demands of the two not only acting but athleticism. This is when they demolish the family dining room as Sullivan teaches Helen to eat from her own plate with a fork and to fold her napkin afterward.
Director Lee Gundersheimer has attempted to relate the complexity of the story by overlapping scenes from different times and having members of the Keller household interact at the same time Helen and Sullivan are engaged. But the scenes between the two are so compelling that the other action onstage is an irritant.
Nonetheless, the concurrent stories are significant and well-executed. Megan Potter is completely credible whether as the mother desperate for some help for Helen or tormented by her daughter’s fear and anger at Sullivan’s “tough love” techniques. Whatever her prevailing attitude, it’s usually in conflict with that of her husband.
Joshua Stenvick moves his Captain Keller character deftly from grudging resignation of Helen’s state, to impatience for results from Sullivan, to acquiescence to her demands for more time. This last shift is prompted by his son, who finally stands up to him.
James’ growth over the length of the play is well-carried by Paul LaNave, who starts with adolescent cynicism about Sullivan’s efforts to believer and stalwart defender.
Solid and polished as these performances are, though, the show belongs to Zehr and Reller. Their climactic scene is one to bring tears to the most jaded eye.
I would agree with pretty much everything here. The style that the combinations of scenes are put together is well done. There are some pretty challenging sequences to perform, and they went off without any noticeable problem to my eye!
The Miracle Works In New Ways
By: Kristi June Beaver
On February 17th's performance of The Miracle Worker
Lights up – though she doesn’t know this. Opening dialogue – she hears none of it. Young blind, deaf, and mute Helen Keller cannot witness many of the endless miracles that occur every day, which most of us take for granted. We can hear everything from jet engines to pin drops; our eyes adjust to see vividly in daylight and in darkness. We use these senses to learn our abundant language beginning at a very young age. Helen Keller, by the aid of Annie Sullivan, took a new path in learning to communicate and understand the world around her. This miracle is presented in every production of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, but the University of Minnesota Duluth’s production takes on new insights to the play. Director Lee Gundersheimer takes us deeper into the mind of Annie Sullivan than other directors dare go. This production of The Miracle Worker allows us to discover the demons in her past and witness not only Annie and Helen’s transformations, but also those of the entire Keller family.
Whether we love, hate, or love to hate the story of Helen Keller, we are all well acquainted with it. Modern day audiences don’t need all of the exposition that audiences of the late ‘50s may have needed. The combining of the first two scenes of the play was a smart choice and very cleverly done. Martha and Percy (Emma Larson and Derik Iverson) seemed to be ironically commenting on the scene of baby Helen Keller declared soon to be healthy by the Doctor (James Goodman). As Martha and Percy morbidly slice up paper doll doctors as means of curing the doctors’ ailments, Captain and Kate Keller (Joshua Stenvick and Megan Potter) put their wholehearted faith in the entirely misdiagnosing Doctor. Putting the dark humor aside for a moment, the combined scenes are very representative of the entire play. The children’s doll “operations” represent the challenging of tradition and of what was expected; whereas, the concurrent scene represents the opposite end of the spectrum of believing almost religiously what was thought to be correct simply because that was the way it always has been.
Even though we know that Helen is blind and deaf, Kate’s discovery of this in the opening scene still somehow manages to be a very shocking and powerful moment – attributing to both the exquisite acting of Megan Potter and the compelling writing of William Gibson. Also on the note of a phenomenal performance, at the top of the show we are introduced to Helen Keller played by Chelsea Reller who was most believably blind as a bat and deaf as Beethoven. There was only one ever so slight moment I vaguely recall questioning whether she actually saw the other actor. Apart from that fleeting thought, Chelsea was entirely truthful to Helen Keller without over-playing any of her unfortunate maladies. Chelsea clearly respects who Helen Keller was. This is evident in her portrayal of Helen’s cleverness in getting what she wants and all of her temperaments.
If I was blind and deaf and no one had the patience to teach me how to communicate before the age of six, I would be prone to moderately violent tantrums, too. Luckily, no need to fear, Annie Sullivan (Kate Zehr) is here. Fresh from the Boston school for the blind, wildly intelligent, oh so Irish, and once blind herself, arrives Annie to save the day. The lack of meaningful communication, the struggle for power, the desire to teach and learn, Helen’s beautiful recognition of finally understanding that ‘words have meanings’ and that sign language is more than just a ‘finger game,’ Annie finally learning how to love, and “Oh, Marge, wasn’t that just precious! We should tell Shirley and Harold to come see this.” This how most productions of The Miracle Worker tend to go, but thankfully UMD’s production delves much deeper.
Rarely are we able to understand just what Annie Sullivan experienced in her young life, but in this production it is ever so clear. Her flashbacks to her days at the insane asylum – though she was never insane, but orphaned – were realized in such a chilling way that, at first, I didn’t really know what to think of them. They seemed far too contemporary and experimental for this show; although, that may be the method to the madness. Annie’s teaching style was incredibly contemporary and experimental in that time period. The Miracle Worker is maybe also due for a bit of an update from the ever-popular and over-done “offstage voices.” As these flashbacks continued to occur in eerie manner, it began to make perfect sense. It makes us put ourselves in her shoes. She made a promise to care for her little brother Jimmie when her parents were no longer around – a significant amount of responsibility for such a small child. Naturally, he would feel betrayed when authorities sent them both to asylums; that’s what they did with orphans in the 1880s. If you had played with rats and diseased, unwanted babies in a room where they stored dead bodies, you might have such terrifying flashbacks, too. Her childhood made her the strong, hard, Irish young woman she was. Kate Zehr did an excellent job of not overdramatizing Annie’s horrific story and frightening flashbacks – not to mention a fine job of not over or under utilizing the Irish dialect. She also has a very good knowledge of the stakes for Annie Sullivan. Annie knows the feeling of being trapped; this is how she identifies with Helen who is trapped within her own mind because of her inability to truly communicate in an effective way.
Another interesting choice made in this production was to turn out the lights or sound during particular moments. Many of us cannot even begin to understand what it would be like to be blind and deaf, but these moments gave us a short glimpse. While Captain and Kate Keller were fighting right over Helen, the lights went out; while the Keller family was having a boisterous breakfast conversation, suddenly their mouths were moving but no sound was coming out. These were great places for these effects to happen, but it left me waiting for at least one more such occurrence. The first one had me somewhat befuddled, the second time it made sense; personally, I needed a third.
Aside from those effects, the technicalities of this play were very well thought out. The set fit the play impeccably. It was very realistic but not entirely complete, so we as an audience had to imagine the windows, walls, and some of the doors. This is in conjunction with our imagining what it would be like to be blind and deaf. In another sense it also is suggestive of almost all of the characters in this play. Annie and Helen are not complete people until the end where Annie learns how to love and Helen learns how to communicate. Captain and Kate Keller don’t feel complete until they truly understand that what Annie was doing was all within good reason and that unorthodox does not always mean incorrect. Let’s not forget Helen’s half brother, the dryly hilarious, continually ignored and disrespected James Keller (Paul LeNave). He has been trying to tell the family all along what Annie was trying do – to deny Helen’s whims when she throws a tantrum so she won’t continue to walk all over them. He became much more complete when he and step mother Kate finally form a positive relationship. The only unfinished aspect of the set that seemed to bother the audience was the lack of any railing on the second story. Whenever Helen and Annie’s physical tussles came a hair too close to the edge of the second level there was an audible gasp in the audience. In fact, someone next to me uttered, “Oh my god, she’s going to fall – she’s blind!” Well done, Chelsea Reller.
The play is clearly not about the costuming, and thus, appropriately, the costumes did not distract in any way. They were period appropriate, and that’s really all we needed. The only moment where costuming became important was when Helen took two buttons from Aunt Ev’s (Caity Shea) dress and attempted to put them on her eyeless doll. This is our first glimpse at Helen’s desire for knowledge and to see what the rest of the world sees. She knows everyone else knows something she doesn’t.
Appropriately enough, some of the best moments in this play occur with the least amount of dialogue. Helen and Captain Keller struggled over the candy he gave her and tried to take back and he picked her up and waltz with her – if that wasn’t the most precious father-daughter moment you ever did see, I don’t know what is… That is until she kicked him. Helen and Annie turn the dining room to shambles in Annie’s attempt to get Helen to simply fold her napkin and eat from her own plate. We know thinking back on the show that these violent, destructive outbursts are strategically choreographed, but we think nothing of the sort while watching them happen. Every kick, punch, hair pull, and push looked entirely real, and entirely painful.
The particular nuances to this production helped us truly understand where Annie and Helen are coming from, making the ending to the story much more powerful. Realizing what Annie has been through, we understand why she told Anagnos – played by Steven Douglas with a quite poor, unidentifiable accent – that she doesn’t have the capacity to love anymore. In understanding her past, makes the ending moment when she says “I love Helen, forever and ever” more than just precious, but completely moving. Seeing Helen’s transformation from an unruly tyrant who got whatever she wanted with her family to a lovely little girl – and then back again, and then presumable lovely once more – made her recognition of the meaning of the word “water” very powerful. The moment when Chelsea Reller’s face lit up in realization could have put Helen Keller herself to shame.
The Miracle Worker is a timeless play because it appeals to all kinds of audience members. Seeing the show can completely alter one’s feelings about it. Having read the show years ago, I didn’t like it and expected to hate this production, but seeing it made all the world of difference. Visually seeing the performance, however, apparently wasn’t entirely pertinent. Quite a few members of the audience were blind and were overheard telling the cast members that it was “absolutely beautiful.” They had been about the set before the house opened to get a sense of what it looked like. Deaf audience members were by no means excluded one bit from this show. Sign language translators were present at every single performance. There is something about translators that makes a show even more powerful, especially such a show as The Miracle Worker. There were moments where I caught myself completely captivated by the translators. They were like underscoring music for those that did not rely on them to hear the play; for the most part they went unnoticed but certainly added to the overall atmosphere, but there were moments where they caught your attention like a charming, faint, and sometimes heartbreaking violin melody.
There is a reason why this play has become a classic. It’s incredibly simple in its plot, but its themes will never go away. There will always be folks who try new methods of solving problems, and there will always be others who try to cling to tradition and what is accepted as the right way. This show teaches us that we must come to an understanding to accomplish anything. This particular production of The Miracle Worker, with each and every one of its distinguishing elements, asks us to open our minds and our hearts to change and to love.
Mark Harvey said it just right, I almost have nothing else to add, except the fact that if he decides to start a blog I will be his greatest fan! I think that all my company will be interested to read it!
This page contains a single entry by Mark Harvey published on February 10, 2012 7:12 PM.
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