Beyond sensation

Beyond sensation

“The Miracle Worker” opens Wright State season

By Brian P. Sharp

For many, the story of Helen Keller is a familiar one. As a blind, deaf and mute child, Keller’s parents failed to properly discipline her, allowing her to run wild by the age of six. Desperate to help their child, the Kellers hired Anne Sullivan to serve as governess and teacher for young Helen. Although Sullivan met with resistance from the Kellers, she finally convinced them to let her work with Helen alone, teaching her discipline and sign language. This amazing story of the triumph of the human spirit is captured in the remarkable play, “The Miracle Worker,” currently running at Wright State University Theatre.

“This is probably one of the most popular dramatic plays,” said W. Stuart McDowell, chair of the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures. “It’s a poignant story because it’s true and it deals with triumph over all odds.  It’s an affirmation of life – one of those plays where everybody changes.”

Anchoring the show are the two young women in dynamic lead roles. Sophomore musical theatre major Kate Mueller portrays Helen Keller, a young girl who is both deaf and blind. Senior acting major Cyndii Johnson plays Anne Sullivan, the dedicated teacher who connects Keller to the outside world.

The production is led by theatre faculty member Lee Merrill. Audiences may remember her as Linda Loman in last season’s “Death of a Salesman.”

“She’s an actor’s director,” said McDowell. “She understands a play from the inside out.”

“The Miracle Worker” is a three-act play by William Gibson. It originally opened on Broadway in 1959 and starred Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan. That production won four Tony Awards, including Best Play and Best Actress for Bancroft.  The play was adapted into a 1962 film in which Bancroft and Duke reprised their Broadway roles; both actresses received Academy Awards for their performances.

“Helen Keller became one of the most important people of her generation,” said McDowell.

This production hits especially close to home, as I have a nephew that is visually impaired.  The actors play with such emotion and passion that you feel the struggle, you don’t just see it.  You can see the passion and doubt in Anne’s mind as she knows she can make a difference in Helen’s life.  This play is filled with drama and life changes for everyone involved.  Anne gives Helen the gift of communication through what we know as sign language.  A gift that was trapped inside a mind that could only act out because she didn’t know each item had a name – water, doll, milk – and she didn’t realize the why; why was water water? Could the doll be milk?  And then, the connection is made and lives are changed forever.

Strong performances abound, but the most notable was by Cyndii Johnson as Annie Sullivan.  Johnson was a child herself and leads us on the journey of her own growth and maturity.  Kate Mueller as Helen Keller comes into her own before our eyes; the struggle, the acting out and then the realization that there is an unknown world out there just waiting to be discovered.  Cameron Blankenship plays James Keller, who is struggling for his own identity and worth.  Cameron delivers a strong performance from start to finish and grows and develops on stage.

This production is full of emotion and will allow you to tear up at the end when “she knows.”  As always, this is not a production to be missed.  If you have seen dozens of versions of “The Miracle Worker” before, you need to see this one.  The bar has been raised.  Michael Amico’s set allows you to be transported into the Keller home and its surroundings.  Danielle Ferguson’s lighting design is excellent.

As the director put it in her notes, “How did Annie Sullivan crawl out of the hell of a childhood defined by alcoholism, abuse, death and abandonment with a tenacity that was the only thing on earth strong enough to puncture through a prison like Helen’s? How did an unloved child learn to love like that? How was it possible when faced with life’s inexplicable cruelty to keep going?”

The cast includes Kelsey Andrae, Andrew Quiett, Cameron Blakenship, Anita Hill, Taylor Montgomery, Julian Rojas, Caroline Gruber, Derrick Jordan and Tyler Edwards. The creative team consists of guest set designer Michael Amico (“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”), lighting designer Danielle Ferguson (“Little Women”), costumer Mary Beth McLaughlin (“Death of a Salesman”), sound designer James Dunlap (“Hairspray,” “The Phantom of the Opera”) and properties master John Lavarnway (“Hairspray,” “The Phantom of the Opera”).

“The Miracle Worker” runs September 20, 2012 through September 30, 2012 at The Festival Playhouse.  Information on pricing and availability of tickets for individual performances is available through the WSU Theatre Department Box Office by calling (937) 775-2500 or online at http://www.wright.edu/tdmp/tickets.html.

Reach DCP theatre critic Brian P. Sharp at Theatre@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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