The Miracle Worker
I was 7 or 8 years old, when I first learned about Helen Keller. The idea of her life—struck deaf and blind from a bout of meningitis at 19 months—struck me as terrifying. Even now, more than 35 years after I first learned Helen’s story, it’s no less haunting or compelling to me, which is why I was eager to see TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada’s production of William Gibson’s play, The Miracle Worker.
The play is based on Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, and portrays the most important time in her life—when her teacher and lifelong friend, Annie Sullivan, entered her dark world and switched on the light by teaching her language.
But unlike Keller’s book, the play tells the story from the perspective of Annie (Megan Fisher), an orphaned young woman of 20 who was nearly blinded by trachoma when she was young and who is tormented by memories of the cruel asylum where she and her sickly brother, Jimmy, lived. Throughout the play, the voices of Jimmy, teachers and asylum workers come to her and perpetuate her feeling of helplessness and strengthen her resolve to keep Helen from the same fate.
Upon her arrival, the source of the problem is very clear. It’s not Helen’s disabilities, but Helen’s parents, ex-Civil War Captain Keller (Cecil Averett) and Kate Keller (Juli Fair), whose feelings of pity have led them to spoil and coddle Helen for too long, causing Helen to be unruly and disrespectful. Annie believes that Helen’s blindness and deafness are no excuse for stealing food off others’ plates, throwing tantrums, breaking others’ belongings or refusing to live by the house rules. If Helen is to learn to come out of her dark cave and learn to exist with others, she’ll need a family that disciplines her and expects proper behavior.
This is where Gibson’s play really excels. The play is highly physical, with the war of wills between Annie and Helen taking place mostly with furious grasps and pats and pushes and pulls, rather than dialogue. Midway through the show, a crucial scene tries both actors’ strength and stamina as their characters struggle for several long, quiet minutes to gain control of the breakfast table. It’s almost as exhausting to watch but totally riveting, thanks to excellent performances by Fisher and the actor playing teenaged Helen, Laryssa Kolstrup. (Helen as a young girl is played by Kayleena Fries.)
However, Gibson’s script is most effective when wordless. The voices in Ms. Sullivan’s head are awkward and at times annoying, and the ignorant, racist dialogue carried on in the Keller family, particularly between Captain Keller and his son, James (played by Izzy Lindsey), made me cringe repeatedly. Additionally, this production’s staging often involves too many things happening at once—for instance, a distracting moment in which a stagehand puts an apron on Annie while she teaches—which diminishes the power of the intimate scenes between Helen and Ms. Sullivan.
TWNN is a group dedicated to exposing young and inexperienced people to live theater, which I support and is one reason I patronize their shows. However, such inexperience may lead to the occasional flub of a line. In this case, it led on more than one occasion to scenes that were very low in energy, in which voices were too low to be heard and long pauses moved into awkward territory. However, I applaud Fisher, Fair and Kolstrup in particular for strong, complex performances that did, in the culminating final scene of Helen’s transformation, truly move me to tears.