THE MIRACLE WORKER
William Gibson`s 1959 play The Miracle Worker tells the story of how young teacher Annie Sullivan miraculously broke through to deaf and blind child Helen Keller and gave her the capacity to read, write and eventually speak. Almost as miraculous is what director Meg Roe does with this creaky vehicle on the Playhouse stage. With a sterling cast, and the precise, intelligent direction that has given her A-list status even though this is only her second mainstage directing job, Roe presents us with a fascinating evening in the theatre.
Framed by the high walls of Alan Stichbury`s large and handsome open set, Anna Cummer`s Annie goes head to head with Helen , played by newcomer Margot Berner in an astonishing opening night performance. (Emma Grabinsky alternates shows with her.) There are plenty of other characters and plot lines: Helen`s father Captain Keller (Tom Butler) and mother Kate (Jennifer Clement), aunt Ev (Bridget O`Sullivan) and housemaid Viney (Marci T. House) spoil her, interfering with Annie`s strategy for making Helen ``learn that things have names.`` Helen`s sarcastic older brother James (Ryan Beil) is desperate for his father`s respect and his own independence. And Annie herself has a melodramatic back-story, a blind childhood in an asylum along with her younger brother whose death haunts her via stagey voiceovers. All this is played out in a wealthy home in 1888 Alabama where the Civil War is a still-recent wound, especially for Captain Keller. The pre-Civil Rights Era provenance of the script is evident in the one-dimensional roles of the Black servants Viney and especially Percy (Hamza Adam).
Butler and Clement humanize the parents with strong, likeable performances, and Beil`s comic genius turns the pouty brother into a welcome voice of absurdity. Together with Roe`s fluid staging, moving people around the house and from scene to scene with the use of a revolve, they almost make you forgive the heavy-handed, formulaic plotting whereby Annie`s teaching and Helen`s learning provide transformative lessons for everyone in the household.
Anna Cummer generally plays lightweight comic roles in Vancouver. Her Annie maintains some of Cummer`s natural comic radiance (and her sweet high voice) but shows a spine of steel as she determines how to get through to Annie: ``to discipline her without breaking her spirit``; to get her ``to imitate now, understand later.`` First she has to overcome Captain Keller`s patriarchal resistance and Kate`s maternal indulgences that have turned Helen into a spoiled, incorrigible little monster. But it`s when she and Helen go one-on-one, alone on the stage, that it becomes a magical place.
Towards the end of Act One they have a scene, maybe ten minutes long, with virtually no dialogue. Annie is determined to make Helen eat her dinner with a spoon; Helen is equally determined to show Annie she can do whatever the hell she wants. The scene is astonishing: a combination wrestling match and food fight, with Annie dragging Helen, lifting her, and literally throwing her onto her chair, and Helen throwing a tantrum, punching Annie, flinging her food on the floor. Unlike most stage fights, none of this looks fake. Credit fight coach David Bloom, the two actors, and director Roe, who ensure that every gesture is precise and realistic. At the end of the scene the two actors (and their characters) are quite obviously exhausted, and so is the audience. It`s one of the most effective stage fights I`ve ever seen.
And what to say about young Margot Berner. I`m sure that Roe coached her movements and attitudes with some of the experience she herself gained from playing the mildly brain-damaged Jhana in last year`s Playhouse production of Toronto, Mississippi. But Berner`s challenge is different: she has to play Helen as blind and deaf and effectively dumb (i.e., incapable of speech), and also wilful, and extremely intelligent. She has to move about the stage as if blind, yet hit all her marks with precision. It`s a powerfully physical performance that never feels fake. I can`t recall a single false note in her movements or gestures or vocalizations. And the moment when Helen breaks through and makes the connection between the words that Annie spells out with her on Helen`s hands and the things they represent—you know it`s going to be a tear-jerker and Berner (along with Cummer) makes it pay off beautifully. Hers is simply a spectacular performance.
Opening the Playhouse season, The Miracle Worker is sure to be a big hit.