Is there a viscerally more exciting American play than William Gibson's bio-drama The Miracle Worker (1959)? Are there better plays? Sure. But I can't think of any other that so catches the audience by the throat and wrings it dry, that so encapsulates the human spirit, that makes us weep for joy at the inextinguishable mystery of life. And is there any other drama that asks so much of its actors; that leaves them bruised from the externals of performing, that leaves us, too, beaten up but better for it? In its magnificent production, A.D. Players strikes right at the heart and delivers an exemplary piece of theater. It's quite an accomplishment.
Using the early chapters from Helen Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life, Gibson (Two For the Seesaw, Golda's Balcony) fashioned a television play for CBS Playhouse 90, then expanded it for Broadway, winning a Tony Award for Best Play in 1960. Anne Bancroft, as headstrong Annie Sullivan, the miracle worker of the title, and director Arthur Penn also won Tonys that year. Surprisingly, young Patty Duke, as feral young Helen, wasn't nominated, but she'd win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1963 reprising this tumultuous role in the movie.
Annie and Helen are touchstone roles in the theater. The physicality is daunting enough: a real test of strength and endurance as Annie (Christy Watkins) seeks to control and discipline wild child Helen (McKay Lawless), all while attempting to teach her that “everything has a name!” She must crack through Helen's shell of deafness and blindness without cracking Helen in the process. Annie gets whacked in the face with a porcelain doll, slapped about, stabbed with a needle, doused with a pitcher of water, and then has to wrestle a thrashing, tantrum-prone and just-as-headstrong Helen back to the dinner table, repeatedly hauling her to her chair each time she tries to escape. She has to force feed her. This “dinner scene” is one of theater's most classic sequences, a masterpiece of intensifying stage action, a rough house of flailing feet, swinging arms, and flung food. It's a battle of wills, all right, civilization vs. primeval. By the end of the scene, we're as drained as the actors, breathless and exhausted.
Directed by John Tyson, a former four star veteran of the Alley Theatre, and astonishingly choreographed by
director John Tyson, a former four-star veteran of the Alley Theatre, Leraldo Anzaldua, this fight scene builds in suspense and ferocity, as Watkins and Lawless (how apt a name for this sparklingly gifted young actor playing such a renegade character) battle it out. At the end, Helen has learned to eat. “The room's a wreck,” Annie deadpans to Helen's anxious mother (Elizabeth Marshall Black) and doubting father (Ric Hodgin), “but her napkin is folded.” This, of course, is but one of many small advances Annie achieves during her miracle assignment, but she knows there's a spark inside six-year-old Helen, raised by her family like a bothersome household pet, and probably meant for the asylum for the criminally insane if she can't be tamed, and she's the one to light up her mind.
Watkins, a veteran actor/director at A.D. Players, reaches the summit of her own achievement in the role of Sullivan. Strong and resilient, full of Irish stubbornness, she's a wonder to behold as she battles her own inner demons of futility, haunted by her dead brother she couldn't save many years ago in a Boston orphanage straight out of Dickens. Ramrod stiff, her eyes obscured through antique sunglasses (the real life Sullivan had numerous operations to cure her own blindness), she's proud and obdurate, wearing those workaday Victorian mutton-sleeved shirtwaists from designer Donna Southern Schmidt like a badge of honor. Shrouded by doubt that she can accomplish anything other than bring a superficial touch of decorum into Helen's dark life, she's nevertheless determined. She will not give up, even after the Kellers all too readily accept Helen's newly scrubbed face in lieu of any deep comprehension.
Any fourth grader who's already played “Connie” in A Chorus Line is headed straight for Broadway, so Lawless, a member of the Humphreys School of Musical Theatre at TUTS, is more than halfway there. Her Helen is a revelation, never cute or winking at us that she's only playacting. She's the real thing, totally committed and giving Watkins a true antagonist to play against. They fit together beautifully. She's as willful as Watkins, yet her Helen is limed with surprising hints of curiosity. She's eager to learn. When the water from the pump gushes over her hand in the penultimate scene – the play's other famous sequence – and that connective spark blazes through her and she finally realizes that everything does have a name, there's water gushing from the other side of the footlights too. It's a gangbuster scene of incredible emotion, joyous and rhapsodic. These two pros wring us dry.
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The entire production feels right, looks right, from the rough wood-planked stage to the counterpane bedspread in Annie's upstairs bedroom. Even the spool-spindle dining room chairs look lived in and used. The set design by Mark A. Lewis is simple but complete; Schmidt's period costumes are marvels; the evocative sound design by Santry Rush bespeaks evening crickets and times long past; and the soft lighting from Andrew Vance envelops this uplifting tale in wispy approximation of gaslight. (The only odd note in all this is the handled paper bag carried by Annie's own teacher Anagnos (Craig Griffin), which holds presents before she embarks on her train journey south. Shouldn't he have a leather satchel, saddlebag, or “brown paper package tied up with string,” not a shopping bag, like he just came from Saks? This is terribly nitpicky. I know, but everything else in this production rings so right.)
The supporting cast is well-nigh ideal: Hodgin's fussy, overbearing Mr. Keller; Black's overly empathetic Mrs. Keller; Jesse Merrill's neglected stepson James – the play's unnecessarily dramatized subsidiary conflict, as if Gibson needed to balance out the Annie/Helen struggle which is more than enough drama; Patty Tuel Bailey's sweet and uncomprehending Aunt Ev; Griffin's stern but wise Anagnos; and little Elena Vazquez's Martha, the housekeeper's daughter who's constantly pestered by Helen, who's always fingering her face as if deciphering its movements.
Springtime in Houston has been a boon for theater. Die Walkure at HGO; Kneehigh's Tristan & Iseult at the Alley; The Spiritualist at Stages; Two Old Black Guys Just Sitting Around Talking at Ensemble. Now to top it off, we have The Miracle Worker. Gibson's uplifting true story, replete with the ceaseless capacity of the human soul to rise higher than the angels, and exemplified in two superlative performances, is grand theater. Its joy will fill you up. Just bring an extra hanky.
The Miracle Worker continues through June 21 at A.D. Players, 2710 West Alabama. For information visit adplayers.org or call 713-526-2721. $20-$40.