First, a confession. This is the second time that this reviewer has seen the Joel Daavid-directed production of The Miracle Worker. (It played at the Matrix in Hollywood in February 2009). The new production at Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center is, if possible, even better than the original.
The true story of Helen Keller, who became blind and deaf at an early age, and of Anne Sullivan, a formerly blind daughter of Irish immigrants, who taught Helen how to communicate, is well-known, and many have probably seen the movie version of the Tony-winning William Gibson play. Daavid’s conception of the play concentrates on an interplay of the characters that illuminates both the main story and the tensions between the supporting characters.
The Kellers, a wealthy Alabama family of the 1880s, are dominated by their seeming feral child, Helen, who because of her inability to verbalize her needs, uses trickery and even physical violence to get her way. There are other problems: the father, a retired Civil War captain, feels ineffectual, his wife is much younger than he is, his son by an earlier marriage resents his father’s remarriage and feels discounted. These tensions are made clear in an early scene in the play and the audience realizes that nobody will be able to breathe freely until someone can be found to handle Helen.
Enter Annie Sullivan, fresh out of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, brash, independent, and haunted by her own demons from a sordid childhood. What ensues is a battle of wills between Annie, the family members, and Helen, that before the play’s end, will result in actual fights between the teacher and the wild child, confessions from Annie, and some surprising resolutions of family tensions.
This would be a very tough play to endure (especially in the fight scenes and the scenes where Annie remembers her past) but Gibson’s script contains some witty dialogue and Daavid is unafraid to temper the “action” with humor.
The performances in this production are excellent, but three performers are especially outstanding. Erin Shaver makes Annie an irresistible feminist heroine, determined to succeed, resourceful, assertive, yet sympathetic. As Captain Keller describes her: “She doesn’t fire one shot and disappear.”
Julie Austin Felder, as Kate Keller, Helen’s mother, has only become more impressive in the Edgemar production. She is inspiring in her own way, heartbreaking, and memorable as a former Southern belle forced into a hard reality as the mother of a handicapped child.
And Carlie Nettles, as Helen, has the formidable task of playing a girl who can’t see, hear, or speak, but nevertheless has considerable cunning and strength. Even in a disheveled state, her face radiates the beauty beneath, and one wants to see her break through the shell of her isolation.
When that moment came at the performance reviewed here, the audience rose in a standing ovation. It was well-deserved.
The Miracle Worker plays through June 28 at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main Street, 310.392.7327.