Golden Age TV drama, including Studio One, Philco Playhouse and many others, was killed off by Vast Wasteland television, beginning in 1960. Stylistically many of the dramas were at least a decade behind what was emerging on Broadway just then—think the young Edward Albee—and earnestness was the dominant mode, such as Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty or Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight. The Miracle Worker is indeed earnest, as well as being a domestic drama with a large cast. For Syracuse Stage’s current production, you can also feel Miracle Worker’s origins in television, with its four levels of staging and seven simultaneous spaces, ready for a camera to cut from garden to dining room. None of these things is a liability, however. What Gibson was trying to accomplish in The Miracle Worker is pretty uncommon in the American theater. Here was an ambitious art- ist who also knew success on Broadway, such as his comedy, Two for the Seesaw (1958). He has a lot on his mind, and not just the story of blind girl Helen Keller turned polymath. The well-known climax of The Miracle Worker is unmistakably influenced by the intellectual revolution in linguistics then taking place. Noam Chomsky’s Syntactical Structures was published the same month as the broadcast. Thus Gibson is presenting a moving and pro- found drama, and he wants to reach the wid- est possible audience, every last groundling, regardless of IQ or attention span. When The Miracle Worker was announced last spring by Syracuse Stage there were cynics in town who felt the drama was shopworn from many, many community theater productions. Done often, yes, but never done to death. There have been at least a dozen such local produc- tions over the years, and more than a few were pretty terrific, with excellent performances. There have also been memorable community theater productions of Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet. With Gibson, as with Shakespeare, pro- fessionalism can take us to new heights. Scenic designer Michael Vaughan Sims gives us a miracle of a set that lets us see www.syracusenewtimes.com the dining room’s relationship to the garden and to the upstairs bedroom. Because it’s upstairs that Captain Keller (James Lloyd Reynolds) needs a ladder to rescue Annie Sullivan (Anna O’Donoghue) after she is locked in by the mischievous Helen (Jac- queline Baum), who has stolen the key. At stage right the barred space that had been the grim Massachusetts asylum where Annie’s hapless brother Jimmie (Christof Deboni) languished is quickly transformed by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s lighting into the gated summer room. Even the dog, handled by Amir Findling, is right on cue to demon- strate Gibson’s points about what language is and is not. In the two leads we have a Juilliard graduate who has appeared in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll on Broadway and an 11-year-old from Fayetteville. They blow away whatever you remember about Anne Bancroft or Patty Duke and really conquer both roles.
As we learn in the dialogue, Annie Sullivan was only 20, had recovered her sight through surgery, and was a double alien as the child of immigrants and a Northerner in the Keller’s Alabama only 15 years after the end of the Civil War. Tutoring the impossibly spoiled Helen was her first assignment. Right away Anna O’Donoghue, slight, thin and auburn- haired, really looks the part. Under Paul Barnes’ well-thought-out and authoritative direction, we see more of Annie’s anguish than many other productions have been able to deliver. Breaking free from Helen Keller’s autobiography, Gibson relied substantially on Annie’s letters, which we see her writing. By emphasizing the scream- ing pain of abandoned Jimmie, Barnes and O’Donoghue increase the burden weighing on Annie, tormented within as well as from with- out. All this is underplayed. O’Donoghue’s soft voice, with the sounded Rs of rural Ireland rather than missing ones from Mas- sachusetts, implies a resoluteness that will not be sundered. Everyone who sees this Miracle Worker will marvel at Jacqueline Baum’s performance as Helen and wonder how it could be possible from a semi-untrained actor. And they should marvel. The answer is the same as the one on how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, prac- tice, practice. Baum is blessed with billowing blonde hair that emphasizes every toss of a feral child’s head. The choreographed fight scenes, arranged by Felix Ivanov, reach chaotic perfection. Every cue, like the defiant dropping of the napkin in the penultimate scene when Helen appears to reject what lessons Annie has taught her, is flawless and affecting. True, Helen has only one two-syllable line, but her face—outwardly blank, shielding rage—is doing all the expressing.
The Annie-Helen dialectic takes place in a troubled household, which is more than a mere backdrop. This is a second marriage for the Kellers, and mother Kate (Regan Thompson, last seen in Almost, Maine) has to contend with her often blustering husband and her resentful stepson James (Eric Gilde). Kate is wracked with undeserved guilt for Helen’s afflictions and has to struggle with ambivalent support for Annie’s efforts. Her shifting confi- dence makes her almost a third lead, remind- ing us that although we know the outcome it really looked unlikely at the time. That the remaining three characters should be less than sympathetic reminds us that one of The Miracle Worker’s strengths is its utter lack of sentimentality. Barnes’ direction gives each one of them resonance. Well-spoken Aunt Ev (Celia Madeoy) is not a bad person, even if her comments are sometimes sharp and hurtful. Paterfamilias Captain Arthur Keller looks like one of those headstrong 19th-century males who is usually wrong, but James Lloyd Reynolds retains some of the character’s dignity and never lets him slip into comic caricature.
Eric Gilde’s stepson James is less of a wastrel and weakling than he has been seen elsewhere, much to the character’s benefit. He sees an analogue of Annie’s strength in Grant’s victory at Vicksburg in the late war and draws his own personal strength parallel with Annie’s progress.
Notable also among the performances is Shauna Miles’ no-nonsense servant Viney, and Craig MacDonald’s Greek-accented Boston teacher, a man not given to varnishing the truth.
In this staging, the Kellers’ water pump is always present downstage, as well as being alluded to often in the text. It’s the setting for a rare climax to a drama that has nothing to do with love, death or winning the prize. The perception of language is commonplace, something the audiences passed through in childhood. Yet it is one of the most affecting moments in American drama, the equal of depending on the kindness of strangers. Once it was just a TV show. And that’s the miracle.
This production runs through April 23. See Times Table for information.
Priming the emotional pump: (pictured above) Jacqueline Baum as Helen Keller in Syracuse Stage’s The Miracle Worker.