Miraculous. That is the only word to describe what happened when Helen Keller learned to do the impossible: communicate. William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" tells Keller's intriguing story, and St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School's production of the play gives us a glimpse of the wonder and validation in those moments when everything goes suddenly, incredibly right.
First performed in 1957 as a television play, "The Miracle Worker" was adapted for Broadway two years later. The production ran for nearly two years and eventually spawned an Oscar-winning film. The play is based on the life of Keller, a deaf and blind child who under the extraordinary guidance of teacher Annie Sullivan learned to communicate through sign language. "The Miracle Worker" focuses on the relationship between Annie and Helen and their struggle to understand each other.
At the heart of St. Stephen's and St. Agnes's production are the performances of Helen (Kat Connors) and Annie (Amanda Roberts). Together they form the crux of the play and carry it off admirably. In one scene, Annie attempts to teach Helen table manners; there is no dialogue, only a silent contest of wills between two skilled actresses. The results are riveting.
Although best together, each actor brings something unique and essential to the production. Roberts, as the fiery Annie, is striking. Equipped with an unerring Irish accent, a generous helping of stage presence and a capacity for delightfully vivid line readings, Roberts creates an unforgettable picture of the woman who would teach the blind to see. As Helen -- an essentially wordless role -- Connors makes us believe in her character through her excellent physicality.
A wonderful tech department bolsters the cast. Props such as a standing bell and a working water pump take the production one step closer to suspension of disbelief; period-appropriate costumes take it another. Best of all is the inspired lighting that directs the attention of the audience as a conductor does an orchestra, with spotlights and murky red shadows for flashback scenes.
"The Miracle Worker" is about the challenges we face and the lengths we must go to overcome them. St. Stephen's and St. Agnes shows us why it's worth it to do so with this affecting production.
Blind and deaf, Helen Keller once said that if she could regain only one of her senses, she would choose her hearing. Seeing, she said, connects you with things, but hearing connects you with people. Because of the perseverance of her teacher, Helen did gain an ability to connect with others, as shown in the St. Stephen's and St. Agnes School's production of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker."
"The Miracle Worker" tells the story of Annie Sullivan, an opinionated schoolteacher from New England who comes to Alabama to become Keller's governess. She immediately realizes that Helen's willful behavior results from her parents' pity and lack of discipline. Annie, however, treats Helen as she would any seeing child, though her tough love draws violent reactions from Helen and initial shock from her family.
Playing Annie, Amanda Roberts brings to life the fierce determination so admirable in her character. Her realistic use of sign language enhances her portrayal of the once-blind governess, and her convincing Irish accent contrasts well with the Kellers' Southern drawl. The physical chemistry between Roberts and Kat Connors as Helen is powerful, as their body language shows the trust and mutual understanding building between the two antagonists.
Alison Yates is believable as Helen's melodramatic mother, a Southern belle who treats her child's fits of temper with peppermint candy and coddling. As Capt. Arthur Keller, Greg Patton conveys the gruff family patriarch who needs persuasion to believe that he is not always right.
The expansive two-story set of the play utilizes the entire stage and includes a remarkable working water pump. Red light emphasizes the emotional flashbacks to Annie's difficult childhood. Though tech-assisted prop changes onstage sometimes distract from the scene taking place, transitions are accompanied by soft music and are generally smooth.
The cast of "The Miracle Worker" proves that dialogue does not always drive a play. Among the most poignant scenes are those in which Helen and Annie interact with just their bodies, pulling, encouraging and even slapping each other to make points. Though it had been Annie's intention to help Helen connect with other people, by the end of the play it is Annie herself who is able to let go of the past and open herself to a whole new world of ideas.