Violent emotional outbursts expressed in astounding physicality mark the production of The Miracle Worker now running in the Adventure Theater of the Cumberland County Playhouse.
On opening night ten-year-old Emma Rhea Sells played the angry, frustrated seven-year-old Helen Keller. Lindy Pendzick played the equally determined Annie Sullivan attempting to serve as her teacher. Their performances were stellar!
Britt Hancock, as Helen’s father, is embittered. Known to all, including his wife, as “the Colonel,” Keller led troops in the Confederate Army. He is accustomed to an orderly life. He expects his commands to be followed, necessary solutions found, and his world to be properly realigned. Hancock plays him as bewildered, arrogant, and angry.
Meg McWhorter, in her second show at the Playhouse, portrays his young wife Kate. Struggling to develop a relationship with her newly acquired stepson James played by Daniel Black, as well as her pompous husband, Kate is also a new mother.
Kate and the Colonel have celebrated the birth of this their first child who was born in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880. Helen had been a normal, happy infant, responsive to speech and entering into the world of normal communication. At nineteen months she contracted an illness. It may have been scarlet fever or meningitis. Skip Ritter plays the Doctor, charged with treating the baby for a disease with which he is unfamiliar. Surely, he assures the parents, she will be just fine. Helen is left deaf and blind.
Hancock, McWhorter, and Black respond in their varied characters to this tragedy. In the beginning, Black brings us James as a self-centered teenager, filled with resentment that the family focus has shifted from him. We see him change from regarding Helen as an animal to be given away into becoming the one family member who uniquely sees Helen as a person, his sister. Hancock portrays the Colonel desperately searching for answers, following any lead to have Helen “fixed.” McWhorter depicts Kate as a young southern lady who had expected to be enjoying her growing daughter with the help of a household staff. Her courage and hardiness emerge in her affirmation that Helen is her child and will not be “put away” in an institution.
Carol Irvin, as Aunt Ev, participates in an energetic wrestling match as she attempts to hold Helen on her ample lap. She is sure someone in Baltimore could help, if she could take the child there. Yet, controlling Helen to take her anywhere is clearly not possible.
Colonel Keller, in his quest for help with Helen, is led to meet Michael Anagnos, the director of Perkins Institute for the Blind. As Anagnos, the multi-talented Michael Ruff convinces Keller that a young woman from his institute may be the one person able to help Helen. Keller anticipates a spinster lady, not a twenty-year-old girl.
As we meet Annie Sullivan, brilliantly portrayed by Lindy Pendzick, we learn something of her own background. The daughter of Irish immigrant farmers, Annie had been struck blind by disease as a five-year-old. When his wife died, the alcoholic father placed Annie and her beloved brother Jimmie in an orphanage. Jimmie died there. Annie is haunted by this loss as we hear through projection actors Zach Villaruz, Lauren Marshall, Weslie Webster, Patty Payne, and Austin Price.
Begging for an education despite her condition, Annie Sullivan had been transferred from the orphanage to Perkins as a sightless student. A series of operations restored much of her eyesight. Anagnos is convinced this 20-year-old survivor is uniquely fitted to work with Helen Keller.
There is a touching scene at Perkins as Annie prepares to leave the blind girls who have loved her: Ellie Burnett, Sophie Burnett, Cally Copeland, Emily Graham, Anya Riechers, Reagan Riechers and Emery Reagan Smith are convincing as they reach out to be physically reassured of the presence of Annie and of each other. The doll they bring as a gift for Helen becomes a starting point for the relationship between Annie and Helen.
Totally undisciplined, Helen has been allowed to live like an animal. Candy has been liberally given as a means of control or at least calming. Into this chaotic life comes Annie Sullivan who knows the importance of discipline if learning is to take place. The sheer animal physicality displayed by Sells is astounding. Pendzick is up to the fight. She must subdue this child, gain her trust, and teach her the connection between words spelled into her hand and physical objects. There is a dynamically portrayed breakthrough, as Helen understands the word and the feel of “water.”
Hancock, McWhorter, and Black brilliantly reflect agitation, anger, despair, and rage, as Miss Sullivan demands that Helen relate only to her. Yet, while they resent her, they come to respect her as hope and some level of order begins to enter their lives.
Dee Bell brings warmth and understanding to her role as Viney whom she portrays as the only member of the household able totally to accept and love Helen. Difficult though it is for her, she releases Helen to the care offered by Miss Sullivan.
We look forward to seeing more of Savannah Hundley in the upcoming Broadway Our Way. Savannah plays Martha, seeking to relate to Helen. In real life or on stage, that is a tough role.
Amid the great tension the audience feels in watching The Miracle Worker, I found the musical ensemble of Quinn Cason and Michael Ruff offered a needed release.
Many in the audience had seen The Miracle Worker elsewhere. Yet, the intimacy of the Adventure Theater, the sense of audience involvement, led everyone I overhead praise to the portrayal offered at the Cumberland County Playhouse. Director Donald Fann has gifted us with yet another show that is not to be missed. Laughter, tears and exhaustion may be part of your reaction. Call to order your tickets soon.