Mainstage Center for the Arts opened its Spring 2013 season with William Gibson’s THE MIRACLE WORKER to a sparse audience; however, the production deserved a bigger audience to match the actors’ energy. Witnessing this amazing true-to-life miracle keeps theater-goers glued to their seats. An interesting and flexible set sits against a color changing backdrop with lighting, sound effects and music to fix the mood. With lights behind the backdrop we see characters posed in a tableau. We know something significant is about to happen. However, what I hadn’t expected was to be haunted by the heavy sounds of Annie’s past.
William Gibson wrote this first as a teleplay and later as a three-act play. THE MIRACLE WORKER, has been nothing short of miracle on stage and offstage itself. For the original actors playing Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) and Helen Keller (Patty Duke), each won a Tony for the Broadway performance and an Oscar for the film. It’s no wonder the play returns to the stage so often.
THE MIRACLE WORKER is the story of a young Helen Keller who at 19 months of age has an “acute congestion of the stomach and brain” (today, probably scarlet fever or meningitis) that leaves her deaf, blind and essentially mute. Annie Sullivan is hired by the Kellers as a governess and teacher to help them reign in this wild and unpredictable child. At that time,1890, there was little work done in that area so children and adults who were blind, deaf or mute were often sent to asylums as mentally damaged. Sullivan, who had been blind herself and grew up in one of those asylums, was determined to perform nothing less than a miracle with Helen. She would make Helen understand a series of hand signs as words. At the same time, Annie is fighting her own demons.
It is now when we are haunted as Annie is haunted by her own history. But it is too loud, forcing us to put the sounds ahead of the Helen Keller story when it should at least be equal. Overall I would say that would be a general note. The actors are miked so the sound needs to be leveled out. In this case, less is more.
Mainstage’s production of THE MIRACLE WORKER, directed by Chris Melohn, brings us strong performances in all the characters, but especially in Casey Williams-Ficarra who plays “Annie” and in Anastasia Korbal who has to say it all without words as “Helen.” The chemistry between those two was obvious. And the tug of war seemed truly a physical battle of wills. I know the character of “Captain Keller” is to be rigid and gruff, echoing the times, but I found he was so angry all the time that when he is supposed to be truly outraged he had no place to go–except to turn beet red. “James” seemed so even-tempered most of the time that when he expressed his frustration with “Annie” (or his repressed anger with the “Captain”) the moment seemed out-of-place. Somewhere in there is a middle ground, but I didn’t see it. “Kate” was played very well by Samantha Kristina Clarke. I loved her in the scene with the baby when she discovers the baby can’t see or hear. With her constant calm after that moment, again there is no need for the “Captain” to be angry with the world; he can still sound in charge.
The lighting, apart from a floating gel (no big deal, it happens), was on target, enhancing the colors and highlighting the actors in each scene. As for the sound…from where I was sitting, I thought Annie’s “demon” sequences, although wonderfully creative, were too loud and diminished the Keller story. There was an attempt at creating period costumes, but I understand that is a costly element of a production. Easier I think for the women to come closer to the period than the men.
This was opening night. I know those in the production noticed the same things I did and they’ll take care of themselves. This is a very creative, excellent production of THE MIRACLE WORKER. All it needs is a little tweaking. And, while I found fault with the sound tonight, it is an easy fix. Even so, it is the best I have seen in dealing with “Annie’s past” as part of the production.
THE MIRACLE WORKER
Written by William Gibson
Directed by Chris Melohn
February 8, 9, 15, & 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm
Mainstage Center for the Arts
at Dennis Flyer Theatre
Camden County College