Thursday, February 6, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "The Miracle Worker"

William Gibson's The Miracle Worker is an award winning play about teacher Annie Sullivan's persistence in teaching blind-deaf-mute Helen Keller the rudiments of language as her way out. Made famous by its 1957 "Playhouse 90" television broadcast, later on Broadway and in film, it also marks local actor Stephen Dubberley's debut as a director in this first production of the Wetumpka Depot Theatre's 34th season.

The action is set in the 1880s at Ivy Green, the Keller's home in Tuscumbia, AL when such children were often sent to asylums where conditions and care were appalling. Having exercised virtually no discipline on their child, and not knowing what to do otherwise at home, the Kellers offer treats to Helen to quiet down her frequent tantrums. But when Annie [Elizabeth Bowles] is hired as teacher/governess for Helen [Miette Crim], things begin to change. Enabling has got to stop, says Annie, but habitual behavior is hard to change.

So begins the journey to awareness for most of the characters in this three act drama whose plot devices  and now familiar episodes in the early life of one of Alabama's most revered heroines show their age. Nonetheless, Mr. Dubberley's stalwart cast turn in fine ensemble and individual performances.

Jimmy and Cindy Veasey play Helen's parents, whose concern for their daughter is unquestioned; though they address it differently, they both allow Helen to be the tyrant of the household, and excuse her behavior without considering alternatives. Mr. Keller rules the family with unquestioned paternal authority, so much that he does not realize how he is alienating others, particularly his son James [Reese Lynch] who is eager to become more independent.

When Annie, herself suffering from diminished eyesight and having self-doubt enhanced by frequent dream/nightmare sequences about her troubled past, makes small inroads with Helen -- not without a lot of obstacles and setbacks -- and asks for more time to get through to the child and teach her both to comprehend language and to love, she is met with resistance from all quarters. -- Everyone else has given up on Helen, but not Annie.

While the plot revolves around Annie's teaching Helen hand signals to spell out words, the themes at the core of the play center on the challenges of raising children. Ms. Crim is a force to contend with as Helen: high spirited, spoiled, vindictive, violent; it is through her commitment to such behavior and what it takes for her to change that makes her performance admirable and utterly credible. -- Ms. Bowles gradually gets through to her by "opening up the treasure inside"; Ms. Crim responds to hand-spelling of "d-o-l-l" and "w-a-t-e-r", and ultimately to "t-e-a-c-h-e-r", and we see the respect that each demands of the other.

And everyone has learned some lessons along the way -- lessons we can all benefit from: don't underestimate people or pre-judge them by appearances; persistence and discipline can work wonders; love takes many forms. -- The Depot Players make this evident through this solid production of The Miracle Worker.