THE MIRACLE WORKER: Classic Drama Featured at Steel River

by Walter Bender

Sometimes I think it’s very risky for any theatre to do the classic pieces. Audiences have preconceived notions of what they will be seeing, and at the very least know the storyline, so it’s difficult to surprise or thrill the audience. However, when it’s done well, audiences will be very engaged, and will respond enthusiastically. Such is the case with the current production at Steel River Playhouse, THE MIRACLE WORKER.

THE MIRACLE WORKER is the story of Helen Keller, a girl who was struck blind and deaf at a very early age by fever. As a result of years of pity, being spoiled by her family and a lack of discipline, Helen becomes almost feral, a wild, angry child, prone to throwing temper tantrums. Her family, after many unsuccessful attempts to get help for her, hire Annie Sullivan to be a governess and teacher. Annie herself was blind at one time, and due to her difficult early life is headstrong and willful, often finding herself at odds with the Keller family, particularly Captain Keller, Helen’s father. After many trials and frustrations, Annie wins over the family, and eventually Helen.

Ginger Fries as Kate Keller, Zoe Muller as Helen Keller. (Photo credit: John Daggett)

There are two separate elements to this production, the physical and the emotional. From the emotional level, the production was beautiful. The characters had a great understanding of their motivations, the hidden layers of love/frustration, and portrayed them very well. Carl Heyde (Captain Keller) impressed me with his ability to display the softer side of a very hard man, always in command, yet the frustrations of Helen’s impairment so draining him. Ginger Fries (Kate Keller) is the doting mother, devoted to her daughter yet able to go against maternal instinct when necessary to allow Annie to try to reach Helen. Philp Seader (James) is appropriately sarcastic and bitter, dealing with his resentment of Kate and the alienation of his father. And then there are Annie and Helen…

Carly Fried (Annie) was spot-on in her portrayal. She was able to show the headstrong side of Annie without being overbearing. Her accent was consistent, and did not distract the audience from the story. And the memory scenes with Jimmy (Liam Keenan) were beautifully directed and performed. Zoe Muller (Helen) was equally skilled in her portrayal. She showed the anger and craftiness of Helen beautifully, and the transition to the frightened child in an unfamiliar environment was very well done.

While the emotional side of the production was wonderful, there was some unevenness to the physical side. The set has a cutaway door in the center of the set…the front door of the Keller residence. This is necessary as the set is designed so there are no sight line issues. However, the cast repeatedly did not help the audience with the illusion, as they used the cut off top of the door to open and close it instead of the door handle…a small thing that detracts from the suspension of disbelief. Also, some of the activity got a bit repetitive. For instance, when Helen was throwing a tantrum, she tended to repeat 3 different moves and didn’t vary them in style or intensity. Another issue was the scene where Annie confronts Helen for the first time to eat from her own plate…the final element of that scene is teaching Helen to fold her napkin. I’m not sure whether that was inadvertently skipped over or downplayed in the performance I saw, but it’s such a vital element (mentioned several times thereafter) it needs to be more of a moment of triumph for Annie.

Even so, this is a beautiful production. I’ve seen many productions of this property, and even with that background, the scene with Annie and Helen at the water pump at the very end brought a very-real tear to my eye. THE MIRACLE WORKER will make you laugh, make you cry, and show you the courage of two very special women.

by William Gibson
Directed by Neal Newman
October 23 – November 2, 2014
Steel River Playhouse
24 E High Street
Pottstown, PA 19464

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