When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to see a production of The Miracle Worker -- William Gibson's well-known play about the early years of Helen Keller -- his first reaction was to tell a Helen Keller joke.
The temptation is difficult to resist. Even Vermont Stage Artistic Director Mark Nash told one in his curtain speech: After making the standard request that audience members turn off their cell phones, he added, "Of course, Helen Keller wouldn't hear them."
Why the jokes? Well, like much humor, they work as a defense. With Keller, the 20th century's most celebrated spokesperson for the deaf and the blind, we also have the benefit of distance: By the time she died in 1968 at the age of 87, she was an icon, and icons invite impudence. It is also true that disabilities like Keller's are no longer seen as fatally limiting. And that progress can arguably be traced to the achievements of Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Gibson's play, the basis for the 1962 Oscar-winning film with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, reminds us what Keller was up against. In the late 19th century, when a fever left her blind, deaf and mute at the age of 18 months, her condition was almost too awful to mention -- something to be pitied but never overcome. Unable to communicate, she became a creature of pure appetite, whom her parents could subdue only by spoiling her rotten. Sullivan was brought in to help when Keller was 6 years old. Once blind herself, she not only managed to civilize the wild child but also, through signing, to introduce her to the world of words.
There was nothing funny about Keller's life. Yet one of the strengths of Nash's production of Miracle Worker is that it takes full advantage of the humor in Gibson's script. That's due in large part to the performance of Ivy Vahanian as Annie. She may seem a little too pert and apple-cheeked for a character described as "awfully rough," but she finds an undercurrent of wry bemusement in Annie's character that helps explain how she managed to survive the challenge of taming Helen -- and how she succeeded first in infuriating, then in winning over Keller's autocratic father, played with authority by Paul Ugalde. When Annie needs to hold her ground, whether standing up to the family or subduing Helen, Vahanian is pure steel.
The role of Helen also calls for an actor with a sense of comic timing, and Nash has one in Charlotte sixth-grader Francesca Blanchard. The famously physical breakfast scene, in which Annie forces Helen to sit at the table and eat like a human, demands more than mere fortitude. The actress playing Helen has to know exactly when to throw her spoon a second, third and fourth time, exasperating Annie while entertaining the audience more and more with each toss.
As she demonstrated in her debut last year with VSC in To Kill a Mockingbird, Blanchard has sure theatrical instincts. What's more, she has admirable powers of concentration. We believe she cannot see or hear, but also intuit that the rest of her senses remain powerfully acute.
If you've seen the film of Miracle Worker, chances are the scenes between Annie and Helen are the ones that remain in your memory. That will probably be the case for anyone seeing this stage version, too; Vahanian's final, triumphant embrace of her difficult student is particularly moving. It's as much about Annie giving herself over to love as it is about Helen's breakthrough into sign language. But Nash has also done an excellent job of establishing the context of their relationship. Gibson's script concerns itself not only with the power struggle between Annie and Helen, but with broader conflicts, too: men vs. women, fathers vs. sons, even Yankees vs. Southerners.
Elegantly simple stage pictures draw the battle lines clearly. We see the ties and the tensions that link Captain Keller and his genteel young wife, played with sweet fortitude by Haley Rice. The couple's insolent son James, played by Jonathon Whitton, accurately portrays the boy's cynicism and the neediness beneath it. A talented ensemble, including Carolyn Gordon as sharp-tongued Aunt Ev and Tienn Wine as the family's skeptical servant, helps establish the world beyond the Keller household, as do the clearly limned class distinctions in Martin Thaler's costumes.
Robert W. Wolff's simplistic, almost barren set is a little unsettling at first, though it is sensitively lit by John Paul Devlin. Where are we? What's with all this gray wall-to-wall, and why's the furniture bunched to one side of the stage -- except for Helen's bed, which is on a platform in the middle of the audience? The answers become clear, and the approach gains in effectiveness, as the production goes on. Annie made her first real progress with Helen by living with her in isolation in a gardener's shed on the grounds; when the bed is moved onstage to become part of Helen's new "home," it's as if her gray world is taking on "color," filling up with objects that are about to have names.
There are some hokey touches in the script, most notably the melodramatic flashbacks in which Annie recalls the voice of the little brother she could not rescue when the two were orphaned. (Aha! So now she wants to
rescue Helen!) But Nash's thoughtful production, particularly the memorable work of Vahanian and Blanchard, amplifies the play's strengths -- and that's no joke.