The play, “The Miracle Worker” re-tells the story of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. Douglas Oakey has this review of a production at Peoria Players Theatre, for Peoria Public Radio and the Live Theatre League. Opinions expressed are those of the reviewer, not those of Peoria Public Radio or the Live Theatre League.
Peoria Players Theatre dusts off William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” this spring, directed by Charles Killen. Good news: The play retains all of its charm and emotional power.
For those new to the show, it’s the classic story of famed deaf-and-blind author and activist Helen Keller, and the woman who first opened up the world to her, her teacher and long-time companion Annie Sullivan. Gibson’s telling of the story recounts the few weeks during which Annie first met and took on the challenge of bringing the child Helen out of the prison imposed by her blocked senses.
The success of any production of “The Miracle Worker” rests mostly on the onstage chemistry between the actresses playing Helen and Annie. In Players’ production, the company has struck dramatic gold in Lindsay Nevells as Annie and Anna Hsu as Helen. It’s difficult to think of a play as physically demanding as this one is for its two principals, and Nevells and Hsu literally throw themselves into their performances with abandon. The physically violent struggles that play out between the determined teacher and the equally strong-willed child must be absolutely real to both the audience and the other characters onstage, including Helen’s appalled parents. I have no doubt that both actresses—and Hsu in particular—find new bruises after each performance or even rehearsal.
Helen presents special challenges for a child performer. With the single exception of one exceptionally key moment, the actress never speaks. Vocalizations are nearly continuous, but the lack of actual speech forces the actress to express and emote entirely through body language and facial expression. Hsu steps up admirably to this challenge. No doubt the sheer physicality of the role overall helps a young actor to abandon the normal restraint we would expect to see. Helen experiences the normal range of human emotions ranging from curious to furious, and Hsu never allows her to become merely the subhuman, intellectually and emotionally limited creature her parents see. The very moving final moments with Nevells are a testament to Hsu’s success with her performance.
Nevells captures all of the attributes that must have made Annie Sullivan the worker of miracles she was, as well as the vexingly independent young Yankee woman appearing among the genteel but overwhelmed Keller family. Helen Keller’s story is a singular achievement, and Annie must appear to us to be a uniquely qualified and gifted person. Nevells commands the stage and completely sells Annie’s quirky determination and abundant wry humor. At one point, Katlyn Linsley as Helen’s mother attempts to temper Annie’s aggressive approach to Helen by reminding her that more flies are captured with honey. It’s an indirect reference to Annie’s vinegary personality, which Nevells puts to good use. She always seems in command, even in her many—and often very funny—scenes with Dave Montague’s Captain Keller.
Linsley as Kate Keller and Montague as the Captain have a bit of a thankless job, portraying essentially well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual parents. Their primary purpose is to throw into relief Annie’s far more progressive and effective dealings with Helen. Still, Linsley’s devotion to Helen is palpable and softens our harsher reactions toward her. Montague is all stern bluster, but he allows us to see another side in his complicated relationship with his older son, James, a child from a previous marriage. Will Swain gives James the requisite sheen of adolescent snark.
Killen’s own multi-level set design works well for the posh Keller home, and the use of a musical score underlying certain scenes gives the production a cinematic feel. Overall, Peoria Players has crafted as good a revival of a classic script as you’re likely to see.
“The Miracle Worker” continues through Sunday at Peoria Players Theatre. Curtain times are 7:30 and 2:00 p.m. The box office can be reached at 688-4473 or online at peoriaplayers.org