Theatre Jacksonville opened the third production of its 95th season on March 6, 2015 with “The Miracle Worker.” William Gibson’s acclaimed story of the early life of Helen Keller will run through March 21. The story was the basis for a very successful film in 1962, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, both of whom had appeared in the original 1959 Broadway stage production, which garnered multiple Tonys.
The play covers a short span of time in the life of Helen Keller, a six-year child who became deaf and blind during infancy, as she is taught to communicate by Annie Sullivan, who is young, Irish, and inexperienced but fiercely determined. The play is centered around the conflicts and obstacles the family, the teacher, and her recalcitrant, undisciplined, and heart-breakingly isolated pupil encounter during the process.
Jordan Born as Captain Keller and Rhonda Fisher as his wife Kate are outstanding as Helen’s burdened parents. They have been considering institutionalizing her, but instead, decide to contact Michael Anagnos (David Horne), of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, to request his assistance in finding a teacher. Laura Meier is amazingly making her theatre debut in the demanding role of Annie, and truly shines. Libby Kellmanson is an eighth-grade student at Episcopal School, and her portrayal of Helen is her Theatre Jacksonville debut. Kellmanson, displaying a wide range of pure physical acting, is great in this role, which while non-speaking, if filled with many grunts, groans, shrieks, and moans. One of the most dramatic scenes occurs as Annie, convinced she must be alone with Helen to teach her to use eating utensils rather than her hands, banishes the family from the dining room.
A subplot concerns the relationship of Helen’s half-brother James (Mitchell Wohl), and Captain Keller, as James is resentful about the lack of attention he receives from his father, and his authoritarian style.
Director Shirley Sacks and Assistant Director JaMario Stills assembled a large and very talented cast with Jeff Grove (Doctor), Alani Ellison (Martha), Post to Post Links II error: No link found for term slug "James Demps, III"(Percy), Karen Koster Burr (Aunt Ev), and Janice Joiner-Alston (Viney, the Keller’s maid). Four blind students from Perkins, who were friends of Annie, were played by Josie Diedrich, Jordan Grossman, Emma Joost, and Megan Nobles. Rounding out the cast and one of the most popular (especially with the children in the audience) was Belle, played by veteran dog actor Dakotah Roche, with owner Susan Roche in the wings to keep her a happy canine.
The play is set in Alabama in the 1880’s and Costume Designer Tracy Olin captured the attire of that era, with ladies in beautiful colorful dresses and children in pinafores.
Scenic Designer David Lynn Dawson has built a split-level home, with a second floor bedroom for Annie on the left, and a dining area on the right. The set features a well with a hand pump in the front yard that supplies water for the household, an important part of Helen and Annie’s story.
This production was supported by a grant from Delores Barr Weaver’s Endowed $10,000 Event Grant Fund, which was newly established in 2015.
The more one knows about Helen Keller, the more interesting this play to the theatre goer. Keller was an amazing person, who fully surmounted the adversity of her impairments. With the help of Mark Twain, she attended Radcliffe for four years, graduating cum laude. At the age of 22, she published her autobiography in “The Story of My Life.” Keller wrote a total of twelve published books, and many articles and essays. She was the first blind-deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1920, she was instrumental in helping start the American Civil Liberties Union. A frequently quoted speaker, one of our Keller favorites is “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”
The play has humor but can move one to tears as well; it is a show for the whole family.