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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Miracle Worker
By Elyse Sommer
Many in the audience at opening of the Berkshire Theatre Festival's revival of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker were old enough to have seen Gibson's drama about the deaf and blind Helen Keller and her remarkable teacher Annie Sullivan half a decade ago, either when it first aired as a teleplay or during its Tony-award winning Broadway run, starring Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke. Younger audience members are probably familiar with this handkerchief dampening triumph over adversity story through the movie (also starring Bancroft and Duke) which, along with Keller's biography (The Story Of My Life), has remained part of high school English curriculums even though Keller died in 1968.
Gibson's play revolves around the two weeks young Helen's well-meaning but misguided family gave the determined Annie Sullivan, herself blind for many years, to perform the miracle of this heretofore wild child's first step to communication. It has had many revivals, the last by a major New York organization being the 1987 Roundabout production which garnered good reviews for Debbie Allen but failed to sell enough tickets for an extended run -- which raises the question of why resurrect it now when so many new plays by young playwrights are begging to be seen?
For BTF the r'aison d'être is two-fold. First, playwright William Gibson is Stockbridge's own theatrical elder statesman. His successful one-person remake of his play about Golda Meir, Golda's Balcony, premiered at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox; his lesser known American Primitive was given new life last season at BTF's Unicorn Theatre. Thus, it's understandable to want to also bring back his biggest hit. Secondly, given the playwright's provenance as a local treasure, this was a good opportunity for BTF's executive director Kate Maguire to put her belief in showcasing local talent into practice. And so, a local girl, Justina Trova, has been cast as Helen Keller and University of Connecticut MFA Acting Program graduate Tabitha McKown as Annie Sullivan, with direction by Gary M. English, the head of that university's drama department.
While I'm all for nurturing local talent and not making everything all about star power, this revival is solid but somehow falls short of being enthralling. It's not that Keller's escape from life in an institution for the retarded thanks to the heroic efforts of her teacher has become less inspirational. Nor can Mr. English and the leads do full justice to the play's big dramatic scene -- the wrenching breakfast battle that leaves the Keller dining room a wreck but Helen's napkin folded. One still rejoices at the halting "wah-wah" that signals Annie's cracking the code to the "locked safe" that has been Helen Keller's mind.
Mr. English and his cast are true to the original so the only thing new is that Ms. Trova is old enough to have graduated from college several years ago. Thus in addition to mastering the grunts, groping walk and wildness of a frustrated, over-indulged child, she has the added challenge of being a believable seven-year-old. She does a very creditable job though this shouldn't make any director planning a revival rush out to cast an adult actress as Helen. Ms. McKown is excellent as the tightly strung Sullivan and the other actors inhabit their roles believably and without cause for complaint. Jennifer Roszell is lovely and loving as Helen's mother and Michael Hammond nicely captures the decency beneath the father's petty-tyrant exterior. It's too bad that the play's subsidiary conflicts -- like the mean-spirited brother (well played by Kasey Mahaffy) who when he champions Annie's cause finally earn his father's respect -- come off as a bit too pat and predictable.
Since the play's manipulative elements do loom large and one can't help wondering if a major new take -- as per the transformation of the original Golda into the much more successful Golda's Balcony -- might not have supplied the miracle needed to lift yet another production of this play out of the nice and ever inspirational but not extraordinary category. Set designer Beowulf Boritt has taken the biggest step in the right directio with a fluid bluish gray set that is realistic yet takes audiences inside and outside the Keller home without actual walls and complicated scenery changes.
The enrichment notes included in BTF's programs are always worth reading. In this instance, Cathy Englade's headlined "the rest of helen's story" are particularly rewarding. They are beautifully organized and full of fascinating details -- a fine theater memorabilia collectible.
LINKS TO REVIEWS OF OTHER WILLIAM GIBSON PLAY
Golda's Balcony (New York)
Great Places to Eat, Shop, Stay
Pamela Loring Gifts
Morgan House Inn & Restaurant
Andrew De Vries Sculptures
Pappa Charlie's Deli
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