March 27, 2003

 

The Miracle Worker

reviewed by
Lynn Trenning

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.

For more about Charlotte Rep, please visit charlotterep.org.

aired on National Public Radio station WFAE, 90.7 FM

Charlotte Repertory Theatre is the co-producer of an ambitious revival of the award winning play The Miracle Worker. The new version replaces Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke with Academy Award winner Hilary Swank and ten-year-old Skye Mccole Bartusiak, and includes a strong cast of Broadway performers. The Charlotte run is a prelude to an appearance on Broadway this April. Directed by Marianne Elliott, of the Royal Court Theatre in London, the play is terrific in some respects, but is a work in progress with room for improvement.

Helen Keller grew up to become a remarkable woman, whose many achievements include graduating from Radcliffe College and receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom. But before she became literate, she was a wild child who lived in her own private hell. Born to a Confederate Captain and his much younger wife Kate, Helen whirls through the house like a dervish, creating chaos in her wake. While The Miracle Worker is ultimately a play about achievement and hope, there is a dark streak of human despair in this volatile drama.

The play opens with a lone cradle under a spotlight on center stage. Into the silence descends a roar, reminiscent of a tornado. When it subsides, Helen emerges blind, deaf and dumb. It is a dramatically fitting opening, for Helenís illness has the impact of a natural disaster on her family. Almost every relationship in the play is filled with tension and conflict even before Annie Sullivan arrives and inflicts further stress.

Helenís father, played by Stephen Markle, has lost control of his household, an uncomfortable position for a man used to giving orders. Helenís stepbrother, played by the handsome Jeffrey Carlson, desperately seeks validation from his father, who is so preoccupied by the difficulty of living with Helen that he ignores his son. Helenís mother has allowed Helen to dictate the terms of the household, which has created distance between her and her husband.

When the strong-willed, job-desperate Annie arrives, she further disrupts the household. As a young Yankee woman, Annie is immediately at odds with the father, under the jealous eye of the stepbrother, and has the unenviable chore of teaching the impaired, undisciplined Helen. Swank brings surprising moments of humor to her role, primarily when she is standing up to Helenís headstrong father. But it is the physical fights between her and Helen that comprise the showís most compelling moments.

As Helen, Bartusiak is enthralling. With eyes wide open she clatters about the house, performing rudimentary hand signals, self-comforting motions and terrific tantrums. She is on-stage virtually all of the time, and fully embodies her role. Her scenes with Annie are shockingly violent. Their relationship is built on desperation. Annie is determined to succeed because she has nowhere else to go. Helen is a precocious child driven to break out of her no manís land.

This story doesnít need embellishment. In several instances, including the final scene, Helenís family commands more attention than they should. The hallucinaty intrusion of the voice of Annieís dead brother is confusing. And the inconsistent Irish brogue employed by Swank is an unnecessary distraction. With a little fine tuning, this play could be a Broadway hit.

Lynn Trenning, March 27, 2003

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