Thursday, March 15, 2018

ASF: "The Miracle Worker"

It would be a disservice to William Gibson's The Miracle Worker to focus exclusively on the relationship between young Irish immigrant Annie Sullivan [Marina Shay] and Helen Keller [Brooklyn Norstedt], and the effort that went into an eventual breakthrough moment for the blind-deaf-mute Helen. It is that, of course, but a lot  more besides.

Set in post-Civil War Tuscumbia, Alabama, Gibson's episodic storytelling has a lot to say about family, patriarchy, behavioral psychology, gender roles, race, social class, bullying, 19th Century medical practices, and disabilities that resonate across time and have audiences reflecting on their own experiences.

At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, director James Bowen gives attention to each of these by placing the action on James Wolk's skeletal minimalist set; and his acting ensemble, dressed in Pamela Scofield's detailed period costumes, enhance the timeliness of these subjects through naturalistic rendering of relationships and dialogue.

From the outset, we learn of the disease that afflicted Helen in infancy, and then fast-forward eight years to a time when the family are resigned to catering to the young girl's tantrums, thereby enabling her to rule the roost. -- When Dr. Anagnos [Louis Butelli], the head of the "Perkins Institute for the Blind", sends the yet untested Annie to be Helen's teacher/governess, the stakes are high and expectations low. But Annie is no pushover, and with her own vision impairment, she uses unconventional tactics that challenge the patriarchy of Captain Keller [Timothy Carter], and the well-intentioned yet destructive enabling of Mrs. Keller [Jenny Strasburg] and Aunt Ev [Toni DiBuono]. -- The only family member who seems to approve of Annie's methods is Keller's son James [Sean Hudock], a youth who is trying desperately to speak up for himself and earn his father's respect. -- Household servant Viney [Ginneh Thomas] observes everything going on around her, and quietly demonstrates a dignity that needs no approval.

Gibson's 1959 script is based on Helen Keller's book The Story of My Life, and the 1962 film that followed it secured its popularity; several iconic scenes are indelibly marked in our collective consciousness: dining room sequences where Helen throws food and steals from others' plates; Annie teaching Helen sign-language words to associate with objects; and the climactic scene at the water pump that has Helen speak for the first time. -- Yet, there are a number of other instances that show the frustrations of the family and their relationships with one another as they deal with the impact of Helen's progress on them: Keller's reluctant capitulation to the wisdom of the women who want to give Annie a chance; James finding an unexpected ally and friend in Mrs. Keller; the powerful bonding between father and son. The actors give credible interpretations that target the most human responses to the challenges they face.

Through persistence and consistency, Annie teaches Helen discipline and earns the approval of the Kellers. The changes that Ms. Norstedt registers -- from the wild feral battles with Annie at the start to the thrill in understanding the meaning of words that will become her salvation -- are impressive; and Ms. Shay is unflinching in showing Annie's determination to do what is right regardless of objections to her methods. Her mantra of "discipline without breaking her spirit" and her determination to get authority for herself for fear that the family might undo Helen's progress ("She's testing you", she says when they return to placating Helen's outbursts by offering sweet-treats and affectionate hugs), center the action and have Annie emerge triumphant in Ms. Shay's capable interpretation of the role.

In the current season's plays, ASF is featuring "some of our native heroes whose triumphs and trials are woven into the fabric of Alabama's history": the Tuskegee Airmen, "Bear" Bryant, and Helen Keller. This iteration of The Miracle Worker is a fitting tribute.