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The Miracle Worker

The Paper Mill Playhouse offers a commendable revival of William Gibson's award-winning play about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan. logo
Annika Boras and Meredith Lipson
in The Miracle Worker
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Since most theatergoers know of the deaf and blind Helen Keller's triumph over her seeming limitations, I'm revealing nothing by saying how beautifully the onset of that famous victory is executed during the climactic moments of William Gibson's 1959 play, The Miracle Worker, now getting a commendable revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse, under the direction of Susan Fenichell.

Although teacher Anne Sullivan (Annika Boras) is ostensibly the one who's worked the titular miracle in the Tony Award-winning piece, it's young Meredith Lipson who performs a theatrical miracle at the moment when Helen makes the connection between the water she's just obtained at the lawn pump and the letters spelling "water" that Sullivan is insistently tapping on her hand. The look that crosses Lipson's face as she slowly realizes the link between words and objects is simultaneously heartbreaking and soul-stirring -- and as much a testament to Lipson's excellence as a young actor as it is to Keller's achievement. (Lipson alternates with Lily Maketansky in the role.)

Since the play's essential theme -- the powerful effect an inspired and determined teacher has on a student's forming mind -- is timeless, Gibson's presentation of it will always snare audiences, Here, the steps taken towards instructing Keller just to sit at the dinner table and eat with utensils from her plate are only the beginning of the dramatic biographical events Gibson forcibly depicts. The 20-year-old Sullivan -- recently recovered from operations correcting her own partial blindness -- believes she can help the pre-adolescent Keller but needs the halting on-the-job training she undergoes to get herself through. Sullivan is resilient, however, and on the way to the great turnaround, she quickly rebounds from Keller's kicking-and-wailing tantrums.

Gibson runs into trouble, however, trying to fill in Sullivan's tale prior to her accepting the Keller assignment. In a series of flashbacks consisting of sound effects and projections, Gibson shorthands Keller's guilt over leaving behind a brother in an institution (or somewhere); and these 10-to-15-second sequences are more confusing than illuminating.

As befits plays written in the 1950s, Keller is seen in the context of a tolerant yet frustrated family that includes her father, Captain Keller (John Hickok), mother Kate (Emily Dorsch), layabout half-brother James (Will Fowler), Aunt Ev (Beth Dixon), and household help Viney (Cherelle Cargill) and Percy (Elijah Isaiah Cook). Gibson's attempts to make the secondary figures fully dimension are most successful in Annie's ideological clashes with the authoritarian Captain Keller, but only partially successful elsewhere -- although the cast members are helpful in making three-dimensional what's only two-dimensional on the page. The production is also fortunate to have fight director J. Steven Geiger, who has plenty to do, and David Zinn's elegantly serviceable set.

Nevertheless, the heart of this big-hearted play is the battle between Sullivan and Keller, a battle that culminates in a jubilant win-win conclusion. Bringing this conflict to life requires actors working completely in concert. Boras tries an Irish accent in the introductory scenes and then goes the hit-and-miss route. Her heavy-footed walk also comes and goes, but she's convincing with the more crucial demands, which are conveying Sullivan's unadulterated love for Keller and the accompanying determination to surmount all learning obstacles.

Before Lipson's shining final moments, Boras is equally in command of the willful, lost Keller, and both she and Fenichell make sure that at no time is the spiteful girl's behavior sentimentalized. That exquisite care is what makes Helen's eventual breakthrough as genuinely uplifting as theater gets.

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