Review by Adrian Barnes
Ole Weibkin and Aliy Pehlivandides have realised a beautiful set of moving parts to grace the stage of the Arts Theatre for Geoff Brittain’s creative and effectively realised staging of The Miracle Worker as the first offering of Adelaide Repertory Company’s 2019 season. The set conjures up beautifully an 1880’s Alabama farmhouse whose household is still living in the wake of The American Civil War, coming to terms with the disability of the daughter of Captain Keller and his second wife that became evident after a short illness shortly after her birth. The family’s dysfunction is clear from the very start of the play and continues to grow in size and temperament as the plight of their deaf, dumb and blind child continues to challenge and threaten their family’s stability.
This play is about courage, determination, perseverance and the clash of two indomitable wills that come to terms with their own personal disabilities to heal their broken spirits. It’s a universal story that appeals to everyman and serves to enhance this story to the level of a parable. The writing is challenging, open, honest and poses for the actors, and the audience, the enduring question of just how far discipline should be taken in the name of progress.
The play is very well cast and the ensemble have obviously worked hard with their gifted director to tell a truthful story that is constantly moving and questioning the motives and morals of the whole Keller family and those who come into contact with it in the treatment of Helen as she grows up wild and uncontrollable.
Jess Carroll and Henny Walters drive this behemoth with a fearless integrity that at times leaves you breathless. Carroll has the silent strength of integrity on her side from the moment she enters the play and Walters physical drive and capability leave one in awe of her stamina and strength as she, without a word, delivers a tour de force of a performance that is memorable, truthful and immensely moving.
Ably supporting these two gifted actors are Jenny Allen as Kate Keller, Helen’s emotionally challenged and exhausted mother. Another performance full of love, despair and eventually joy as she seeks to protect her child with all her strength. Captain Keller so finely drawn by Brian Knott is at odds to understand why everyone challenges him. His defiant strength and authority are gradually humanised by his experience, and Knott’s understanding and range give him the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and nuance as a performer.
Ronan Banks as James Keller gave a fine and sensitive performance as the young man just wanting to have some attention from his father and step mother, who is left constantly overshadowed by his step sister’s needs. He showed great capability and subtlety and added zest and vigour to the show. Jean Walker as Aunt Ev was, as always, a joy to watch. Hell hath no fury like an aunty scorned – watch out for that one. It’s a gem of a performance, small but perfectly formed. Therese Hornby as Viney, Stanley Tuck as Mr Anagnos and Luca Camozzato as Percy rounded out this fine cast of actors that ensured we had an excellent night in the theatre.
This play is funny, challenging, in your face and at times hard to watch. The physical realism of the piece was a highlight of the evening. The scenes, at times, were so real it was a temptation not to race from one’s seat to break up the confrontation between the two women who so courageously created the backbone of this story.
Excellent sound design by Ray Trowbridge, video production by Ben Todd, fight scene coordination by Stanley Tuck and lighting design by Richard Parkhill plus great costumes by Gillian Cordell rounded out this excellent start to the Rep’s 2019 season.