"The Miracle Worker," which opened on May 11 at the Chatham Drama Guild, is both interesting and insightful. Directed by Pam Banas, the play is set in Alabama during the 1880s and is based upon the true story of 8-year-old Helen Keller – blind, deaf, and mute since infancy – and her new teacher, Annie Sullivan. Thrown into tantrums, rage and violence as a result of her inability to communicate, Helen is in danger of being sent to an asylum. Her parents seek help from the Perkins School for the Blind, and are sent Sullivan, a young, inexperienced and partially blind graduate.
Rebecca Lach, as the willful and driven Annie Sullivan, carries most of the show. Haunted by personal memories of how she and her brother, as children, were put in a state asylum, Sullivan is determined to not let that happen to Helen. Lach's performance is deep, bold, snappy, confident, energetic, and downright genuine.
Her daughter, Sage Lach, only 12 years old, delivers an extremely believable performance as Helen Keller, frustrated at not being able to express herself or be understood, yet clever enough to wear down the adults in order to get her way. This bright young actress kept in character through the entire play.
The famous dining room scene in the first half of the show, in which newly employed Sullivan attempts to discipline Keller, required incredible physical stamina and endurance, as well as focus, imagination and creativity. And this level of physical action continued throughout the play. Truly, those two must be exhausted at the end of each show!
In addition to reaching Helen, Annie Sullivan must win the confidence and trust of Helen's parents, not an easy challenge. Captain Arthur Keller (played by Rick Smith), a retired Civil War army captain and newspaper editor, is rigid and stubborn, but nonetheless thrown by Helen's condition. Kate Keller (played by Tonya Felix), is Keller's second wife, and is both devoted to, and worn down by, Helen. Felix delivers her performance as a strong and forthright mother, yet still giving in to spoiling Helen, most likely out of both guilt and exhaustion.
Delane Moser, as Aunt Ev, the arrogant and opinionated Victorian female, and Jarrett Strzepek, as Captain Keller's son, James, round out the family. Strzepek , an eighth grader, had a challenge in this role, which is typically played by an older actor. Yet he added a highly believable quality to the already strained father-son relationship. Throughout the play, as James slowly finds his voice and confidence, Strzepek portrayed the youthful rebelliousness and outspokenness in a fresh way.
Supporting roles were played by Joseph Theroux, thoughtful as Dr. Anagnos, and Jenny Wood, energetic and chipper as the main servant, Viney. The servant children were played by local sixth graders Alexis Arruda and Liam Jordan, both whom doubled believably as the blind children from Annie Sullivan's school. Take note of Liam Jordan, someone to be watched: this boy has incredible stage presence and related so well to the other actors in his scenes.
Though a bit stilted in the beginning on opening night, the play picked up the pace and dramatic momentum in the second half. The set was cleverly designed to include five different areas, which flowed into each other. Some of the set detail tended to be distracting, when the focus should have been on the actors. The characters' interactions were at times delicate, intimate, and subtle – and it would be worth having no walls just to focus on the incredible family dynamics that were taking place.
The play itself conveys numerous timeless messages. First, Annie Sullivan's belief that sometimes a parent needs to get out of their own way and allow the teacher to work with their child. Second, that obedience helps children to learn. Third, that no one is worth giving up on. Lastly, that faith, persistence, and love can breakthrough walls, even to unleash a miracle. And indeed, with persistent action, the drama builds, and in the second half of the show, a miracle does happen.
"The Miracle Worker," written by playwright William Gibson, won several Tony awards, including Best Play, and was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Kudos to the Chatham Drama Guild, a true community theater, for taking on a play of this intensity. The Guild has recently completed interior renovations, which included lowering the stage at least three feet, which invites the viewer into the scene. The audience appeared to appreciate this new change. Personally, as a newcomer, I found the guild and its entirely volunteer-driven staff to be a friendly and welcoming presence.
The play also holds a local connection to the region, as Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller visited the town of Brewster on three occasions. They stayed in the Crocker house on Lower Road, and in fact, the photograph used as the show's program cover depicts the real Keller and Sullivan in 1888 Brewster, courtesy of the Brewster Historical Society.
Adding even more depth to this production is the fact that Rebecca and Sage Lach are lifelong fans of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, and have a deep connection to the story, including a letter signed by Helen Keller and received by Rebecca great-grandmother in 1958. How great is it, that parent and child perform together and share their love of the arts?
This production of "The Miracle Worker" is definitely worth seeing, for the incredible and uplifting story it tells.
"The Miracle Worker"
At the Chatham Drama Guild, Crowell Road, Chatham
Through May 27,m Friday and Saturday evenings 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 4 p.m.
Information and Reservations: 508-945-0510, chatdramaguild.org