Written in 1957, “The Miracle Worker” dramatizes the story of Helen Keller’s fateful meeting with the teacher who would change her life.
At just more than a year old, Keller was stricken by a disease that robbed her of her sight and hearing. By the time she turned 10, Keller’s family was close to giving up. They took a chance on young teacher Annie Sullivan, who had been born blind, but as an adult had her vision restored through surgeries. In the 1880s, she lived with the Kellers and succeeded in teaching Helen how to communicate using sign language, a breakthrough for which Mark Twain dubbed her a “miracle worker.”
Rob May and Johanna Hoshall are fantastic in the roles of Helen’s parents, delivering performances that are natural and emotionally sincere. While Hoshall’s performance is effectively understated, May gets to go big, nailing a number of comedic scenes based around the his losing battle to maintain a sense of control in his own house when going up against a number of beautiful and intelligent women. Fireworks fly between him and Allyson Rose’s Annie in a number of scenes that leave May hilariously flustered.
Among such a strong main cast, Rose delivers the standout performance, creating a complex character that has lived through hell and come out stronger and wiser for it. She’s fiery and feisty, but also brilliant, with a wickedly quick sense of humor. She also does a pretty darn good Irish accent, making her performance that much more appealing.
The heart of this play is Annie’s relationship with Helen, played by Chloe Stevenson; both actresses fully commit to the battle of wills that plays out in a number of physically and emotionally exhausting scenes. Stevenson shines as the star around which everything and everyone must orbit. The role of Helen can be turned into a one-note tantrum-fest so easily, but Stevenson does a good job of hinting at the intellect trapped inside this girl.
Joshua McGowen is appropriately smug and charming as Helen’s disaffected brother, while Peggy Hoshall and Erin Hart turn in memorable performances in their supporting roles.
The set, constructed by Richard Howells, is one of the more attractive and ambitious I’ve seen at Jewel Box. Using a variety of levels and focus, James Gordon’s lighting design greatly reinforced the division of space in the multilevel set, providing appropriate atmosphere during key emotional scenes. The costumes by Dale Morgan and Cayla Greer were generally good, save for a few unappealing numbers.
The only real problems were a few delayed lighting and sound cues and the recurring audio flashbacks meant to illuminate Annie’s past. The clips feature voices recorded at different levels — some too quiet, some blaring — with performances that run the gamut from great to almost cartoonish. Given the emotional resonance these scenes are supposed to have, I wish a little more time had been spent on getting the voice-overs up to par.
On the surface, it might seem like a no-brainer, but plays like “The Miracle Worker” are easier to screw up than you think. It’s a story so many people know, it’s hard to make it feel fresh.
Director Shawna Linck does an excellent job of working with her cast to bring out the nuance of the script, creating a solid show that is totally effective as an inspirational, surprisingly humorous story definitely worth seeing.