Pollard Theatre Company has revived The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s 1959 biographical drama about the meeting of young Helen Keller with her first teacher, Annie Sullivan, in a production that features a couple of affecting performances by actors in the principal roles. And what great leading roles they are.
Set in the 1880s around the Keller homestead in Tuscumbia, Ala., The Miracle Worker depicts the early life of one of America’s most extraordinary and accomplished citizens.
Sullivan changed Helen’s life, and Gwendolyn Evans’ superior performance as the governess and teacher makes this production a notable success. Her performance is reason enough to see the show.
Annie is haunted by her past. She was raised under horrific conditions in an asylum and lost a younger brother, who is a ghostly presence in the play.
Her upbringing has toughened her and given her self-discipline, but it has not removed all self-doubt. Evans strikes just the right balance between Annie’s strength and vulnerability, and she nails Annie’s wry humor.
Annie needs a sense of humor to deal with Helen, whose indulgent relatives have made her a hellion and then some. The girl is a master at manipulating adults, finagling sweets with the deftness of an accomplished pickpocket. Annie realizes right away that Helen is intelligent, if out of control, and she must find a way to discipline the girl without breaking her spirit.
Helen’s eyes are so sensitive to light that she always wears dark glasses, and Annie knows that she must teach her to communicate with people.
“Language is to the mind what light is to the eye,” she says.
Evans’ excellent counterpart is young Alexandria Grable as the blind and deaf Helen. Grable plays Helen’s evolution from undisciplined problem child to hopeful youth with subtlety and authenticity.
In an early scene, Evans and Grable are alone on stage as Annie confronts Helen at the breakfast table, where the girl is accustomed to grabbing food off anyone’s plate.
Such behavior is familiar to the Kellers, but Annie says, in remarkable understatement, that she’s not accustomed to it. Evans and Grable engage in what could be called, without exaggeration, combat.
Annie eventually subdues the girl and, thus, we see the first step on the journey of a thousand miles as Helen Keller becomes one of the modern world’s great success stories.
Helen’s accomplishing the feat of folding a napkin is so momentous that it’s almost enough make the Kellers forget that the South lost the Civil War (which her father and stepbrother are still fighting about over the dinner table).
Directed by W. Jerome Stevenson, the production benefits greatly from the performances of Evans and Grable. At times, the other characters seem almost superfluous. Jared Blount’s sound design is effective, beginning with the chirping crickets.
Annie Sullivan should be an inspiration for teachers — or, for that matter, human beings — today.
The play offers a great lesson on sticking with what one seeks to accomplish.