“In her bones those five fingers know, that hand aches to speak out, and something in her mind is asleep. How do I nudge that awake?” These are the passionate words of Annie Sullivan as represented in William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker,” a staged docudrama telling the story of Helen Keller’s difficult upbringing.
“The Miracle Worker” makes one half of Indiana Festival Theatre’s 2014 repertory plays, the other half being Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night.” The two plays (which will rotate in the Wells-Metz Theatre through July 27th) share a terrific cast assembled from professional and student actors.
“The Miracle Worker” was adapted from Helen Keller’s autobiography “The Story of My Life” first into a 90-minute teleplay, then into a stage play, garnering the 1960 Tony Award for Best Play. At its heart, “The Miracle Worker” is a story about love and the lengths to which we go for it. In the case of Helen Keller, the love her parents feel compels them to spoil her. The love her teacher feels compels her to devote herself to giving Helen the gift of language.
Dale McFadden’s direction of “The Miracle Worker” is tasteful, simple and adroit. McFadden’s design team effectively establishes the atmosphere of 1880s Alabama.
Hillary Clemens brilliantly realized the character of Annie Sullivan in this production. Clemens brought scalpel-edged focus to the role, resulting in a nuanced and cogent performance.
Similarly admirable is the work of Lola Kennedy in the challenging role of 6-year-old Helen Keller. Not only does Kennedy consistently maintain a realistic portrayal of her character’s disabilities, but she also sustains high energy and reactiveness on stage.
A fervent (albeit somewhat underwritten) subplot involves Helen’s half-brother James (Adam St. John) searching for love and approval from his father. St. John is convincing and humorously cynical as James.
A highlight of this production is Rob Johansen’s fight direction. The play is fight-heavy, with multiple incidents blurring the lines between spelling lessons and wrestling matches. Actors adeptly and vigorously execute Johansen’s seamless choreography.
As Mr. and Mrs. Keller, David Kortemeier and Jenny McKnight bring the audience to understand their characters’ weaknesses in raising Helen. The Kellers struggle to let go of Helen and leave her to Sullivan’s care. Helen’s parents cannot help but treat her with pity, when firm discipline and high expectations will be more beneficial in the long run.
In smaller roles, Nancy Lipschultz (Aunt Ev), Ben Abbott (Doctor), Mara Lefler (Viney) and Ian Martin (Mr. Anagnos) achieve equally praiseworthy performances.
Gentle humor will keep the audience interested through this lengthy three-act play. Helen’s journey is an arduous one, and it is not until well into the second act that she manages to fold a napkin independently. Despite this slow-moving plot, tensions soared on stage; moments of boredom were few and far between.
“Language is to the mind as light is to the eyes,” claims Annie Sullivan near the beginning of “The Miracle Worker.” The events of this play only span a short period of Keller’s childhood, but they were an essential step in Keller becoming the renowned writer and humanitarian she was. This remarkably touching play will humble and inspire audiences, reminding us that determination and patience are the primary ingredients for great achievement.
If you go
WHO: Indiana Festival Theatre.
WHAT: “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. today, Friday, Sunday and July 22, 24 and 26; 2 p.m. Saturday and July 27.
WHERE: Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center, 275 N. Jordan Ave.
TICKETS: $15-$25. Available at www.theatre.indiana.edu or call the IU Auditorium Box Office 812-855-1103.
Reprinted with permission.