The scene most often remembered and cited from "The Miracle Worker" is the confrontation at the water pump between the blind and deaf child, Helen Keller, and her teacher Annie Sullivan. At the pump, Helen finally learns to put hand gestures and word meanings together. This comprehension of words will, as her teacher says, be the key to her intellectual development.
But the most memorable scene in Olney Theatre's production of William Gibson's play occurs much earlier, and hardly a word is spoken. It's the confrontation between Helen and Annie over the less exalted issue of table manners, and, by extension, whether Helen will ever be able to function as a human being rather than a pitiable creature.
Actresses Pat Karpen as Annie and Theresa Ann Karanik as Helen conduct a pitched battle all day long in the dining room. We see only a few pieces of it, of course, but even these excerpts constitute an almost unbearably grueling physical ordeal for the combatants. The scene illustrates the extent of the agony involved in the education of Helen Keller, and only by watching it do we appreciate the ecstasy that follows.
Karpen and Karanik are well-matched fighters. Not once do they betray director James Waring's choreography of the scene. This looks lie a real fight to the finish. At the finish we learn Helen can fold her napkin. It's a small but intensely satisfying triumph.
Most of the nitty-gritty involved in getting through to Helen occurs offstage, during intermissions. When her epiphany at the pump occurs, it almost seems that she knows too much too soon. There a couple of other minor dramaturgical problems - the distracting friction between Mr. Keller and his son and the rather trite and not completely coherent flashbacks to Annie's past.
But these are problems of the play, not this production. And they are insignificant compared to the exhilarating indestructibility of the true story that's being told.
"The Miracle Worker" deals with loaded subject matter - a blind and deaf Southern child taught by a formerly blind Yankee schoolmarm. But it is not gooey. Is stance on the possibility of human achievement is very positive. But it is not moony. It earns the right to be positive.
The performances of Karpen and Karanik are beauts. They make sure that their characters earn whatever payoff comes their way. They have shaped physical details until they're flawless - their faces are endlessly expressive. Karanik is making her professional debut, and it's an auspicious occasion.
Halo Wines and Charley Lang are notable in supporting roles. Rolf Beyer's sets look complicated but work. The whole play works hard, but it doesn't quite work miracles. That distinction belongs to Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.