Sometimes we young and cynical theater critics roll our eyes when we hear we’re going to see a 40-year-old drama. Having grown up on MTV and Ritalin, we anticipate a long, stuffy, boring production full of moralizing and old-fashionedness.
Knowing that it’s “The Miracle Worker” — about how Annie Sullivan taught blind-and-deaf Helen Keller to communicate — just makes it sound worse. One, the subject matter is rather dreary, and two, we know how it ends: Annie succeeds, Helen communicates. Whoopee.
But then, sometimes we young and cynical theater critics get our insolent faces slapped by a show so moving and human that we leave the theater with tears in our eyes.
“The Miracle Worker,” being performed at Pioneer Theatre Company through Dec. 20, is one of those shows.
Filled with hope, optimism and pure, unadulterated humanity, “The Miracle Worker” is touching and inspiring. Unfortunately, those words, “touching and inspiring,” are often used to describe things that are actually rather trite and generic, such as TV movies-of-the-week and Hallmark greeting cards. This show is none of that. The difference? This show is real.
And it’s not just because it’s based on a true story. It’s real because of some very fine acting performances. Lauren Lovett’s Annie Sullivan is young, enthusiastic, idealistic — but very real. We identify with her. She seems like someone we know. Her effervescence practically bounces off the stage into the audience, drawing us into the small Alabama homestead at which the action takes place.
Johanna Leister and Kenneth Gray are also outstanding as Helen’s grieved parents. Leister, particularly, is heart-wrenching as the mother who just wants to love her daughter. She is willing to go through any amount of heartbreak just for the chance that someone can help Helen. She never gives up, even in the face of failure.
And then there’s Helen herself. Thirteen-year-old Emily Jane Stewart plays this non-speaking role with such depth and realism that you’d swear she’d just stood there and told us Helen Keller’s life story. It’s a difficult role: no talking, just some grunts and occasional (well, frequent) tantrums. How to play that without caricaturing it? I don’t know how she does it, but Stewart pulls it off. How real is she? Even during scene changes, she stumbles around the stage, in character as a deaf and blind girl. One is almost surprised to see her walk out unassisted for the curtain call, so genuine is she in her performance.
Two scenes are particularly well done. When Annie first arrives and tries to teach Helen sign language by making the signs and having Helen feel them with her hand, the effect is riveting, captivating. One is fascinated by the interaction, hoping it will work, praying that Helen will understand. It is easy to forget that you’re sitting in a theater, watching two actresses who didn’t know each other a few months ago. The chemistry between the two cannot be faked.
The other scene is the breakfast scene. Annie kicks the family out of the house, convinced that she must be alone with Helen in order to get her disciplined enough to eat with a spoon and not with her hands. The sequence is several minutes long, with almost no dialogue, and yet again — it’s fascinating.
It’s also funny. And yet, it’s not what I’d call comical. That is, there are no set-ups or punchlines, per se. The laughs come naturally — it’s the comedy of real life, as Helen tries to get away from Annie, and Annie tries to discipline Helen.
Much of the show is like that — funny, but not jokey. True, real humor, almost like the playwright barely intended it to even be funny. Just like real life: You don’t plan the humor in your life; it just sort of happens.
When Helen finally understands at the end of the play, it’s like a floodgate has been opened, for her and for the audience. The play doesn’t show us how Helen grew up and became a powerful, brilliant woman. It doesn’t need to. Just showing us the beginnings — the struggles, the hopefulness, and the eventual discovery — is enough.
The point? That there’s always hope. Such a trite, over-used message in a world full of trite, over-used messages, but true nonetheless. “The Miracle Worker” is not trite, not syrupy, not maudlin, not melodramatic. It is powerful and touching, and genuinely inspiring. You won’t see a better play for a very long time.
I went to this show fully expecting to be bored, and I was quite pleasantly surprised. I freely admit that I wept openly for most of the drive home, simply because of the huge emotional release at the end of the show. In writing the review, I found myself unable to find enough adjectives to describe the show, so good was it in so many areas. As the show ended and the audience filed out of the theater, I heard people just agog over the whole thing. "Wasn't that wonderful," "just fantastic," "so good," people were saying to each other. The man sitting directly in front of me, whose enormous head blocked my view of many a scene, stood up and said, "If that [b-word] who writes for the 'Tribune' says anything about this show, we're canceling." It was Critique from the Common Man at its finest: He knew this show touched him, and he wasn't going to hear anybody say otherwise. Fortunately, the 'Tribune' theater critic liked the show, too, else she might have found herself getting a punch in the face from John Q. Public.