It's easy enough— unavoidable, actually — to admire and be amazed by the accomplishments of Helen Keller, but it took the account by playwright William Gibson for the remarkable work of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, to be so widely appreciated. The current 2nd Story Theatre production of The Miracle Worker (through December 14) manages as powerful and affecting a job with the play as we will ever see.
REACHING OUT: Thompson as Keller.
This is a brisk and skillfully told tale to work from, for the most part. We are plunged into the emotional plight of the Keller family in the first seconds, as Annie's mother, Kate (Erin Olsen), suddenly discovers that her infant, just having recovered from a deathly illness, cannot see or hear her. The drawn-out scream of her name blends into the sight of an older Helen (Amy Thompson) across the stage, isolated in a spotlight, disheveled and groping the air.
Helen is virtually feral. Not wanting to add to her misery, her genteel mother and lovingly hapless father, former Confederate officer Capt. Arthur Keller (Eric Behr), simply stand back and watch. The wild child does what she wants, snatching food off their plates instead of eating at her own place, throwing violent tantrums at any objection. Only her half-brother James (Jonathan Jacobs) keeps calling, futilely, for some discipline.
Into the maelstrom steps Annie Sullivan (Joanne Fayan). She has spent most of her life at the Perkins Institution for the Blind — operations have restored most of her vision — and her very first job has sent her to the Keller household as a governess and teacher.
The central scene is the drawn-out battle to teach Helen table manners. The rest of the family is sent out of the dining room, and away from their dinner, as Annie repeatedly forces Helen back into her seat. Helen's hand keeps being pulled away from her plate, and spoons arc over her shoulder like a succession of sheep being counted. By the end, not only is the child eating, but she also is folding her napkin, to the astonishment of her parents. Annie's concern that she discipline Helen without breaking her spirit is relieved. But Helen now flees at her touch, a bit of a problem when you're trying to spell words into someone's hand. Needless to say, Annie solves that with desperate ingenuity.
Obviously, there's plenty of room here for pathos, but under the direction of Ed Shea, it is the relationships and situations rather than the theatricality that guide us. Having had a horrific childhood herself, in an impoverished Irish immigrant family, Annie fights Helen's fury with mirrored fierceness rather than softhearted compassion. She doesn't even love Helen, she admits in bafflement at one point, plunging back into the fray like a lion tamer. Fayan makes Annie someone firmly dedicated to doing a good job of work rather than being a do-gooder. Before she joins the Keller household, when her own teacher at Perkins describes Helen as a locked safe with perhaps a treasure inside, Annie points out that the safe might very well be empty.