REVIEW WRITTEN BY DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For Digital First Media
The Miracle Worker opened on Broadway in 1959 when it garnered Tony Awards for the playwright William Gibson, as well as Anne Bancroft.
There was a reason for that. It told a powerful story of the importance of the inner life in a world where all too much emphasis is placed on appearances and reputations.
It is based, as most know, on the life of Helen Keller who was to become a world-famous speaker and author in spite of having started her life blind, mute and severely hearing impaired.
It is all about soul and, ultimately, about the miracle within each human being; a burning a desire to learn and grow and know.
It is also a very well written piece of theatre with many poignant and deeply moving moments.
The original production accelerated the rise of its two crowning stars, Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, who respectively played the deaf-mute Helen Keller and her devoted governess-teacher Annie Sullivan.
Both actresses recreated their roles in the 1962 film, and two TV adaptations (the first, in 1979, with Duke graduated to the role of Helen) and countless stage productions have helped the work reach subsequent generations.
The original production auditioned over five hundred children to come up with Patty Duke, but the folks at Media Theatre are most fortunate for having discovered someone so theatrically gifted as Lexi Gwynn in the role of Helen Keller.
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 Media Theatre drama team has jumped in to these deep 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.
It’s a role beyond the range of most seasoned actors, however, Lexi Gwynn renders a sensitive, truthful and touching performance as Helen Keller. She conveys Helen’s desperation, her rage and her sadness, with great conviction. She is especially convincing in the first half of the play as an almost feral “wild child” — flailing, groping, and emitting inarticulate grunts.
I was particularly moved by her reactions when Helen isn’t the focal point of the scene; reading her face you get a glimpse into the remote world where Helen lives and where Miss Gwynn has set up residence.
On opening night, I felt that Jennie Eisenhower as Annie Sullivan leaned a bit heavily on her rapid fire pace of speech and an all-too-quick reaction/response to whatever challenge was thrown her way. This may even out during the length of the run. Nevertheless, her scenes with Helen are heartbreaking, passionate, and full of the fire of her convictions that a miracle is bound to happen.
The two actresses do full justice to the play’s celebrated scene — Helen and Annie’s bruising dining-room battle and the bout richly justifies Annie’s victory bulletin: “The room’s a wreck, but her napkin is folded.
Hillary Parker beautifully targets the proper misplaced warmth of Helen’s long-suffering mother. The domineering Captain Keller, is solidly portrayed by Andrew Criss. The actor brings shading to the role, making this father three-dimensional while conveying the love and decency beneath his authoritarian Victorian father facade. Both actors are so deeply in tune with their characters that they give this revival an added dimension.
Alex Kryger, with a flawless southern accent, provides depth as Helen’s older half-brother who can’t get his father to pay any attention to him because the family’s focus seems to be entirely on Helen.
Director Jesse Cline has cast a solid children’s acting core. In the scene where the girls were say goodbye to Annie as she leaves the Institute for the Blind to teach Helen, every performer maintained their character from their entrance to their exit. It is refreshing to see such youthful commitment and energy.
Matthew Miller’s set is appropriate, taking the audience inside and outside the Keller home without actual walls and complicated scenery changes. Troy O’Shia’s black and white lighting is dramatic but not much is achieved in the way of a thoughtful sound design.
This play’s reputation may be primarily one of inspiration, but like any great play it never forgets to entertain along the path to enlightenment.
IF YOU GO
What: “The Miracle Worker”
Where: continues at the Media Theatre for the Performing Arts, 104 East State St. in Media, When: Now through Feb. 15.
Info.: Call (610) 891-0100 or check www.mediatheatre.org.