Language led her to freedom


Review: ‘The Miracle Worker’

Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre’s production of William Gibson’s contemporary classic, “The Miracle Worker” opened this weekend at The Edison Theater. 

Directed by Juliana Olinka, the post-Civil War drama portrays the story of Annie Sullivan’s (Madeline Roy) first month as a teacher and governess to blind and deaf Helen Keller (played by seventh-grader Melanie Moyer).

Keller was born with her sight and hearing. However, as an infant, she contracted an illness “of the stomach and the brain.” Consequently, this left Helen with parents whose pity and overwhelming love led them to spoil their daughter for the first six years of her life. 

With her family feeling too overwhelmed by her disabilities to teach her, Helen learned to be wild, throw raging tantrums, and neglect her appearance.

When Massachusetts-native Sullivan arrives at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Ala., her minimal teaching experience was limited to tutoring other students at Perkins School for the Blind. Helen’s parents, Captain Keller (MLRT veteran, Greg Young), and his second wife Kate Keller (beautifully played by Jennifer Collins), are skeptical that the 20-year-old Sullivan will have any effect on their precious yet tempestuous daughter.

Especially concerning for the Captain is Sullivan’s use of discipline: he feels she is too harsh on young Helen, a child after all. “Obedience is the gateway where knowledge enters the child,” Sullivan counters.

Gibson gifted the character of Annie Sullivan with thought provoking and inspiring dialogue, while unfortunately leaving the Captain with dated humor and self-centered opinions clearly written for a 1950s audience. 

With the right character actors, like Olinka’s abundantly talented cast, it’s easy to let little flaws like that drift away without casting shadows on an almost flawless production.

While Sullivan struggles to gain the trust and respect of resistant Helen, Gibson echoes this relationship with the Captain and his son from a first marriage, James (Craig Sterling). James wants his thoughts to be more than heard by his father; James longs to be understood. Sterling portrays disgruntled James with vibrant sympathy.

Collins perfectly presents Kate Keller’s struggle with the traditional culture of her family and giving her child a nurturing education like any other child. Aunt Ev (played by remarkable Eva Poole-Gilson) serves as the voice of an outsider: Though she’s not always around, when she is, her opinions ring loudly.

It’s no secret that the final minutes of “The Miracle Worker,” when Helen feels the water coming from the backyard pump and understands its relation to the letters w-a-t-e-r Sullivan has been signing in her palm, are incredibly provocative, and despite a reviewer’s warning, still likely to produce as much waterworks from the audience as does the garden pump.

Lucky for Mammoth, Olinka’s cast is an ensemble that works together like a single organism: each actor following the same rhythm, with no single star shining above the rest. Together, they allow the audience to feel intimately connected to the story of a family’s struggle to communicate, and how they all must change their views on language and proper discipline.

Petite Moyer effectively portrays Helen in Olinka’s production with a frustrated longing to connect and share with the people around her. Roy gives the role of Sullivan a steadfast and quiet energy, highlighting her innovative side.

Multitalented Olinka also designed the set—washed in a jet-black background, where only the Civil War era furniture and the drama stand out, creating an intimate feeling between actors and audience. In many ways, the set design is perhaps similar to the way Helen probably viewed her surrounding.

The costume design was fittingly constructed by teamwork from Pam Bartley and Cathy Foye. The omnipresent Tim Casey is not only the lighting designer but also did set construction with Bill McChesney and Jeff Smith. The rest of the ensemble is filled out by Kevin Worden (playing dual roles as the doctor and Sullivan’s teacher Mr. Anagnos), Cecelia Orrick (playing Viney), Tina Orrick (as Prissy), Maya Tubbs, Torrey Patrie, Maya Weber, Connie Moyer, Jamie Peabody and a very tame dog named Boo Worden.

The MLRT company has put together a magnificent performance of “The Miracle Worker,” mostly due to the love and true dedication everyone involved has for this story.

“The Miracle Worker,” is now playing at The Edison Theatre through Feb. 24. Thursday through Saturday performances at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m.