Covedale’s “The Miracle Worker” Has Vision and Heart

Review by Doug Iden of The Miracle Worker: Covedale

The American classic The Miracle Worker inaugurated the 2017-18 theater season at the Covedale Theater. Based upon real events, the play depicts the desperate attempt of 20-year- old teacher Annie Sullivan to help the blind/deaf youngster Helen Keller achieve success in the seeing/hearing world. But Boston-bred Annie faces an even greater challenge than she anticipated when she meets the spoiled and tyrannical offspring of an Alabama businessman and his family in the late 19th Century. First, Annie had to establish discipline with the young girl while fending off the well-intentioned but misguided behavior of Helen’s family who felt sorry for the girl and molly-coddled her.  Then, Annie had to create a feeling of reliance with Helen so the youngster could start to make the connection between words and the objects that the words represented.

The success of the play hinges on the tug of war between the two highly intelligent but determined women, and Rebecca Whatley (as Annie) and Brooke Chamberlin (as Helen) are up the challenge. Even though you are probably more familiar with Helen Keller than Annie Sullivan, this story is definitely about Annie. To quote Director Greg Proccacino from the program’s Director Notes, “(Helen) could not have accomplished ANY of it without the fiery spirit, dogged talent and tenacity of her teacher, Annie Sullivan.” Whatley displays this “fiery spirit” as she battles Helen, Captain Keller (Helen’s father played by Brent Alan Burington), Helen’s over-protective mother (Sarah Viola) and her drift-less half-brother James (Michael Donohoe) while fighting her own internal demons. As the play progresses, everyone changes.

Multi-layered themes include dysfunctional families, differing reactions to a challenging child, post-Civil War hostilities to the North, southern paternalistic attitudes towards women and the general medical ignorance of handling “afflicted” people.

The primary supporting cast of Burington (Captain Keller), Sarah Viola (Kate Keller) and Michael Donohoe (James Keller) adds significantly to the overall tensions and drama. Viola’s character has to navigate a perilous journey between her paternalistic husband who expects complete obedience from her while trying to protect Helen from her husband’s misguided approach towards the child. Burington is whipsawed between his feelings and the determined attitudes of Annie and his wife. Michael Donohoe, while acting as a sarcastic “Greek Chorus” for most of the play, finally achieves the backbone to stand up to his father and provide grudging support for Annie.

The static set, designed by Brett Bowling, works effectively by presenting two different scenes at the same time. On the left, there is a table at which most of the family dynamics play out, while the right features a bed which alternately serves as Annie’s bedroom in the Keller house and a cabin on the grounds which allows Annie to work privately with Helen. Scene changes are handled by lighting although there are times when the two scenes merge with action happening in both areas simultaneously. Sound, combined with lighting, (Denny Reed) effectively tells the backstory of Annie’s tenure in an asylum, her relationship with her doctors (she is partially blind) and her poignant relationship with her younger brother. One particularly effective prop is the water pump which becomes the catalyst for Helen’s final metamorphosis. The costumes by Caren Brady appear to be period appropriate.

Director Greg Proccacino as crafted an excellent production. My only quibble is that Annie’s Irish accent waxes and wanes a bit and Helen’s transformation seems a bit abrupt.

Overall, I recommend this play continuing at the Covedale through October 1. Their next production is Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein starting in October.

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