Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, December 2001
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller (1880-1968)
I do not know the context in which Helen Keller made this remark, nor the age at which she made it, but there is no doubt that she could not have made it at all without the aid of Annie Sullivan (1866-1936).
Playwright William Gibson is very clear in his introductory remarks to the sequel The Monday After the Miracle that The Miracle Worker is not a play about Helen Keller but a play about Annie Sullivan, her teacher. And yet he is wrong because of the deeply symbiotic relationship between the two women. When they met in 1887 both women desperately needed a miracle to enable their lives to move forward. Seven-year-old Helen was struggling to escape a world of literal darkness and silence. Twenty-year-old Annie was struggling to escape a darkness of the soul inflicted by the poverty and abuse with which she was raised. There could not have been a Helen Keller without Annie Sullivan, but conversely, without someone on which to work her miracle, there could not have been an Annie Sullivan without Helen Keller.
This makes for rich theatre, and the Drury Drama Team has jumped in to these deep and treacherous waters feet first with both eyes open. Not only has Gibson created fascinating roles in Helen and Annie, but he has also succeeded in creating a believable family dynamic with Captain Keller; his young adult son by a first marriage, James; his second wife, Helen’s mother, Kate; and the extended family of servants and relatives that surrounded and supported an affluent newspaper editor’s family in Alabama in the 1880’s.
The burning question for me, upon entering the Hunter Center Theatre at MoCA to watch a dress rehearsal two days before the opening, was: Are these kids up to it? Can young people ages 11-18 get under the skin of these people from another time and place and make me believe in them and care about them? Can they work that miracle, the miracle of the theatre, successfully?
The answer is a resounding yes. This is a very good high school production of The Miracle Worker. Director Len Radin always sets the bar high for his young actors and crew, and they consistently strive to reach his goal, succeeding far more often than they fail.
Sarah Simon centers the show as Annie Sullivan. I had thought of Helen Keller as the more difficult role simply because of the challenge of successfully convincing an audience that you are deaf and blind, but I realize now that the actress playing Helen at least has her entire face visible to the audience at all times. Annie Sullivan was, at various times in her life, blinded by trachoma, and she wore dark glasses when she could see because her eyes were so sensitive to the light. Simon has to make us understand and empathize with her with her eyes hidden, and she has to handle extremely physical scenes with her own vision no doubt quite impaired by those glasses. She succeeds. That she doesn’t quite understand Sullivan’s bulldog tenacity and the fierce independence that led her to seem downright peculiar to the average genteel antebellum southerner is only a minor flaw. Simon plays her Sullivan her way and makes it work.
Ashley Samia also creates her own Helen Keller. Smaia’s handicap is that she is a good decade older than the character she is portraying, and she looks it. If Sullivan had succeeded in getting through to a teenaged Helen it would have been a miracle of a completely different kind. Samia succeeds in convincing the audience that she is physically handicapped, but fails to play a convincing seven-year-old. This is not surprising as few teenagers are interested in regressing to the childhood they have so recently struggled to shed.
I only wish that Simon and Samia had been able to get over their own innate niceness. I am sure that they things they do in this play – hitting, biting, spitting food, throwing water – are unlike anything either woman has ever dared to do in real life. And they work hard to make it seem real and unrehearsed, but they don’t quite succeed. You always believe that these are two nice girls play fighting.
Brian Rennell and Shelby Lewis as Captain and Mrs. Keller make a warm and convincing married couple and very believable parents. Both find the humanity as well as the frailties in their characters as they struggle to do right by their daughter and deal with the addition to their household of a very ornery and unusual governess.
I really enjoyed Peter Simon as James Keller, adult son of Captain Keller by his first marriage. Although I have seen The Miracle Worker, before, this character and this aspect of the Keller family dynamic passed me right by. Gibson uses James as a sort of rational everyman to comment on Helen and Annie, but also brings him in to the action nicely as he struggles to get his father’s affection while competing with Helen, Annie, his pretty young stepmother, and a new baby in the household. Peter Simon made me laugh and brought a greater depth to the play as a whole.
The show also looks great. Radin and fellow set designers Ron and Tiger Waterman have built and decorated professional quality settings that look even more dramatic on the MoCA stage. Radin has utilized the huge screen there to project film of Annie’s memories and inner dialogues. I was slightly jarred that he decided to make the film in color (doesn’t everyone know that the past was in black and white??) but I came to realize that color makes the horror of Annie’s early life that much more real.
Radin and his Drury Drama Team are a true, home grown North Adams miracle, another living example of Keller’s words: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” There are plenty of seats in the Hunter Center Theatre. I encourage you to buy a ticket and fill one of them on Thursday or Friday night. You will be glad that you did.
In June 1960, a fountain was dedicated at Radcliffe College in memory of Annie Sullivan. At the dedication Helen Keller said one word, “Water.”
The Drury Drama Team production of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker runs December 6 & 7 at 7 p.m. in the Hunter Center Theatre at MASS MoCA (413-662-2111), 87 Marshall Street in North Adams. The show runs two hours with one intermission and may be too scary for very young children. Tickets are $7 for adults and non-students, $5 for students.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2001