WHO IS THE real "Miracle Worker" at the center of William Gibson's endlessly revived drama? Is it Helen Keller, the blind-deaf legend whose triumphs over disability never fail to inspire? Is it Annie Sullivan, the remarkable teacher who brokered Keller's release from unimaginable isolation? Or could it be Jim Petosa, artistic director of the Olney Theatre Center?
Those who grouse that the latter does not belong among the lofty ranks of the former have obviously not seen the sparkling new $8.5 million mainstage theater Petosa is christening this month, an achievement that, miraculous or not, ranks as an important milestone for the 67-year-old theater company.
"It is an incredibly stunning performance space," says Carolyn Pasquantonio, the Helen Keller of the present "Miracle Worker," who also happens to have been the Helen Keller of Olney's 1992 production of the play, both directed by Petosa. "It's just breathtaking."
"But very intimate," adds MaryBeth Wise, versions 1992 and 2005 of Annie Sullivan. "There's no place to hide."
After all, of the theater's 429 seats, none are more than 60 feet from the proscenium (balcony included). Olney's new mainstage is tailor-made for small-cast dramas and the tiny, almost imperceptible changes their characters specialize in. It's also a homey setting ("very, very warm," Wise says), an effect only enhanced by Petosa's casting of Wise and Pasquantonio for the space's inaugural production, two old friends whose personal and professional relationships have long been indistinguishable.
Case in point. "Life is about a series of connections," Pasquantonio says. She is apparently making a thematic point about "The Miracle Worker" and Annie Sullivan's initial struggles to communicate with Helen Keller. Then again she might also be referring to her own first meeting with Wise, when the two were students at Catholic University. Or perhaps she was talking about the 10 months the pair spent on the road during their first go-round with Gibson's play, or that time, a few years back, when Wise was a member of her wedding.
Wise is similarly unreadable. "There's this incredible need of two people, and they can fulfill each other" sounds like a "Miracle Worker" curtain line, but it's also an apt description of the actresses' past tours in the Kennedy Center's "Little Women" and "Twelfth Night," and their Thelma-and-Louise-like taste for theatrical roads as yet untaken. (If you're wondering, John Pielmeier's "Agnes of God" and David Auburn's "Proof" are on the short list of plays the pair would like to jointly tackle next.)
"Olney's strength really lies in its ensemble, a rare thing in this day and age," Pasquantonio says. "People come here to see provocative theater but also actors who work together well." And as of this week, audiences will gain yet a third reason to love the Maryland company: a new place to explore the intimacy of strangers, with a complexity of human connections visible from any seat.