Spotlight: The Miracle Worker
While this story has been told plenty of times before, it retains appeal when told well, as in this case. For those raised in a hermetically sealed cubicle, The Miracle Worker concerns Helen Keller, who was struck blind and deaf by a freak disease when she was a baby, and who subsequently made the unfathomable leap from the silent darkness into communication with the assistance of sign language. The action in this Torch Theater production takes place on an Alabama homestead (wood-tone set by Michael Hoover), where young Helen (Shelby Flannery) would more appropriately be pronounced hellion--she rampages through her dark world with feral aggression and haunting amorality. Dad Captain Keller (Fred Wagner, amusingly long-suffering) and mom Kate (Colleen Hennen) view their daughter with a mix of pity and fear for the future. Yet their indulgence keeps Helen from rising out of her animalistic state, or so says teacher Annie Sullivan (Stacia Rice), who quests to help Helen construct a credible reality without the benefit of a full set of her senses. Rice conveys hardened empathy in the role, and 10-year-old Flannery convincingly projects Helen's frustrated, identity-muddled swim through her existential plight (the moment that hits hardest is when Sullivan asks the stunned family whether they truly like Helen). Craig Johnson directs, and the cast achieves a solid if unexceptional sense of chemistry, the notable exception being Rice and Flannery's all-out inhibition in the famous dining-room scene. Matthew Amendt stands out as brother James, a borderline ne'er-do-well who comes across as scarred by the loss of his mother (the Captain's first wife) and the more ephemeral loss of who his younger sister might have been if fate had left her untouched. There isn't much going on here that will be a surprise to those familiar with the work, but the pace does not slacken, and Helen's monumental triumph at the end, when she finally bursts into reality, is as moving as they come.
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