Review by Tony Knight
William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was first performed in 1959, winning the Tony Award for Best Play for the Broadway season1959-60. This season is notable for the number of plays and musicals that centred on strong and formidable matriarchal female characters. This includes Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, and Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, as well as Gypsy by Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Arthur Laurents.
The Miracle Worker is based on the real-life relationship between the young Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Although not mentioned directly in this play, prior to Annie Sullivan’s extraordinary work and achievement with Helen Keller, treatment for the deaf and blind was basically to pack them off to an insane asylum. It was Mark Twain who called Annie Sullivan a ‘miracle worker’, words William Gibson subsequently used for the title for his play.
That all the events described below work so well in Adelaide Repertory Theatre’s production is due to director Geoff Brittain and his cast, and in particular Jess Carroll as Annie Sullivan and Henny Walters as Helen Keller. Praise should also go to Ole Weibkin and Aliy Pehlivanides (Set Design) and Richard Parkhill (Lighting Design).
The play’s dramatic narrative is particularly focused on the desperate situation facing the Keller family, who live on a remote farm in late-19thCentury Alabama, in dealing with the out-of-control young Helen. This is the first point that makes this 50-year-old play still so relevant to today. What does a family do with a child who needs and demands special attention, which a family simply cannot provide? In this case, the Keller’s call for help leads to the young Annie Sullivan coming to the family home. The complex question that subsequently comes to surface is whether or not you ‘like’ your child. You may ‘love’ them, but do you ‘like’ them?
From the very beginning it is a battle of wills, not just between Annie and Helen, but also between Annie and Helen’s family, particularly her father and mother. This is the second point of contemporary relevance –the relationship between parents and a teacher.
Annie Sullivan, however, is no ordinary teacher; nor is Helen, an ordinary child. The harsh reality that Annie Sullivan forces the Keller’s to confront is that it is their pity for Helen that is part of the problem. Their love for Helen leads them to allow and indulge in her wildness rather than disciplining her. It is, however, harsh discipline that Helen desperately needs, even if that means meeting violence with violence.
This reaches a climax at the end of Act 2 in the 3-act script, or in Adelaide Repertory Theatre’s 2-act adaptation, prior to the interval break. An extraordinary and rather lengthy physical fight occurs between Helen and Annie around, under, and over the family dinner table. The audacity of this incredible scene is one reason why The Miracle Worker is so highly regarded. There really isn’t anything else like it in modern drama; not just a full-on fight between two female characters but also between an adult and child.
The other reason why The Miracle Worker maintains its deserved high status is that it is profoundly moving. The play has the power to reduce an audience to tears.
This is most apparent in the final scene of the play when Annie Sullivan makes her last desperate attempt with Helen. Suddenly, the ‘miracle’ happens; Helen makes the connection between the sign language she has been taught and its meaning. In contrast to the theatrical boldness and violence of the earlier fight, this moment is remarkable for its simplicity and beauty. It catches one off-guard as the build up to it is another physical fight between Annie and Helen, but all that suddenly changes when the ‘miracle’ happens, and the tears begin to flow. I wasn’t alone in being emotionally affected; I could hear people weeping all around me. Amazing and wonderful.
As was noted when the play was first performed, there is a ‘clunkiness’ in the respective ‘voiceovers’ that touch on the inner demons of Annie Sullivan’s past. These things are still ‘clunky’; however, Geoff Brittain and his team have theatrically stylised them in a very effective way so that they are bearable, and certainly no impediment to the overall production.
The only other point of criticism I have is there was a discernable vocal stridency and physical tension that was at times distracting, with the actors shouting their lines. However, this was probably mainly due to opening night nerves and will settle down during the run.
What is certain and highly admirable is that, Geoff Brittain, together with his cast and creative crew, have created a dynamic, elegant, and profound production of The Miracle Worker that is well worth seeing.
I thoroughly recommend this beautiful production, and thank the Adelaide Repertory Theatre for producing this American ‘classic’ that is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year.