Imagine a brilliant mind imprisoned in a young body. No sight. No sounds. No boundaries. No codes. Angry, frustrated, confused, enraged. Her well-meaning parents want to love her, but how can they when they have no peace? Young Helen Keller has no way to express herself beyond acting out physically. Desperate, they hire a governess.
This is the story of The Miracle Worker, running now through January 10, 2016, at Artists Repertory Theatre. The play, by William Gibson, began as a television drama in 1958 and then a Broadway play in 1959. It won a Tony for best drama, and later was made into an Oscar-winning film.
My preconceived notions of what the play would be did not prepare me for what I saw as this stellar cast directed by Damaso Rodriguez delivered the goods and left the audience spellbound.
The play opens in the late 1880s. At a genteel home in the Deep South, seven-year-old, blind, deaf, and feral Helen Keller (Agatha Olson) is doing what she does best–terrorizing the household. Meanwhile, in a Boston institution, Annie Sullivan (Val Landrum) has recovered her eyesight after a series of operations. She can’t see well, but she can see. Now it is time for her to be released and make her way in the world.
Hired as Helen’s governess, Sullivan arrives at the Keller household where she quickly learns that the largest obstruction to Helen’s education, or indeed any progress at all, is her family. Add to that, Helen’s father The General (Don Alder) has no love for Yankees–particularly outspoken, stubborn, independent, Irish, female Yankees. The stage is set, and the story moves forward.
Anyone with an inkling of the life of Helen Keller knows that she and her teacher Sullivan did, indeed, work miracles together, and then made it their lifelong mission to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, women’s suffrage, and civil liberties for the disenfranchised of all walks. What the audience attending this play may not be prepared for is its fierceness and physicality. I have never witnessed anything like the end of the first act–brutal, passionate, real, and excellently choreographed.
Bravo, bravo, bravo to the abilities, tenaciousness, and talents of Agatha Olson and Val Landrum. What a team! Because of her youth, the 12-year-old Ms. Olson deserves particular recognition for a performance that would do her credit on any stage anywhere.
Even if you’ve seen The Miracle Worker, this is a show not to be missed.