The 2017-2018 season at the Covedale Center for the Performing Arts is starting off on a dramatic note with William Gibson’s gripping play from 1957 about drive and the triumph of the human spirit, The Miracle Worker. Though it is adapted from Helen Keller’s own autobiography, the play centers around the struggles of Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. A woman who, while mostly blind herself, fights tooth and nail to get through to a 6-year-old girl who has been both blind and deaf since falling ill as a baby. Much like last season’s production of Doubt: A Parable, this production is a departure from the traditional musicals and comedies typically featured on the Covedale stage. Also like Doubt, this show delivers solid, thoughtful, and at times intense dramatic performances.
The relatively small ensemble of characters is very well cast. Both Brent Alan Burington as Captain Keller (Helen’s father) and Sarah Viola as Kate Keller (Helen’s mother) bring an authority and warmth to their roles, respectively. Even though she has no songs to sing this time, Viola’s lilting voice is a pleasure to listen to, especially with this show’s requisite southern drawl. Michael S Donohoe plays Helen’s half-brother, James, who spends much of the show criticizing everyone else. Donohoe’s demeanor and sarcastic smirks fit the character well.
Rebecca Whatley plays the lead role of T-E-A-C-H-E-R, Annie Sullivan, a 20-year-old woman whose entire life has been a struggle. She was born blind, but, thanks to surgery, now has limited vision as long as there isn’t too much light. Whatley does a tremendous job of balancing Sullivan’s range of emotions and motivations, not to mention making an alphabet of hand gestures seem effortless. She’s a woman who is intensely driven, despite her own self-doubt, and who is still being tortured by her past. There are moments in the show where she flashes back (audio only) to terrible times as a child with her brother in the sanatorium where they grew up. Those moments are made to feel even more isolating as the stage gets darker, save a bluish spotlight on Annie. It’s a simple, but effective mood-setter. Whatley skillfully switches from those isolated moments of pain to getting right back to fighting to teach Helen. It’s a tremendously taxing role, and Whatley rarely shows any weakness in playing the part. Throughout the show, I found myself constantly asking “what would I do in that situation?” and Whatley’s believable grit and determination are quite inspiring.
Though she’s not technically the lead, the only person working harder on stage is Brooke Chamberlin as Helen Keller. This young lady has the unenviable task of playing a character everyone in the audience is watching all the time, and who can’t interact with any fellow cast members in any way that’s “normal.” Imagine taking everything you know about human interaction and not only ignoring it, but replacing it with an altogether alien, almost animal-like instinct. You can’t look at anyone talking to you. You can’t even give signs that you hear them. Your whole world is black except for what you may be touching (or what’s touching you) at a given time. And Chamberlin is fantastic from start to finish. Her bio in the program references a dance background that serves her well. Even though her movements are blocked and well-rehearsed, Chamberlin impressively makes you believe she’s walking chaos. A wild child. I found myself watching her when she was not the focus of a scene, and I never saw a moment when Chamberlin dropped character.
Chamberlin’s chemistry with Whatley on stage is another element of this production that deserves praise. The pair have a lot of physical interaction, and much of it is unpleasant. Helen’s struggle to understand and Annie’s struggle to teach her are both paired with several actual struggles between them. There’s a particular scene in the dining room where Annie is determined to get Helen to sit and eat with a spoon. It’s a fight that does not end quickly, and illustrates how endlessly exhausting Annie Sullivan’s work to teach Helen is. I can’t imagine how much work the director, Greg Procaccino, and the fight director, Melissa Bennett Murphy, put in with these two actors to make that scene as believable and heart-wrenching as it was.
Procaccino’s direction also balances the show’s intensity with very human emotions. Whether characters are bickering or negotiating or trying to communicate at all, everything comes across as personal and honest. That sense is most profound in the run up to the climax as Captain Keller and Kate try to decide what’s best for their daughter. For all of Burington’s bluster as the Captain, and all of Viola’s motherly tenderness as Kate, both are just trying to figure out whether all this pain (both Helen’s and their’s) is worth it. They’re struggling. And that comes across very clearly on stage.
The simple set is a bit of a departure for Covedale. Even though much of the play is set in and around the Keller home in 1880s Alabama, scenic designer Brett Bowling eschewed a large, detailed set. Instead, there’s just a dining area on one side, a bedroom on the other, a background indicating a mostly wooded area, and off to stage right there’s the water pump where Helen makes her famous break through at the show’s climax. The audience has to use a bit of imagination to fill in the blanks, but it’s not off-putting at all. It may actually make the audience feel more invested in the story.
Inasmuch as a curtain call is part of a show’s production, I was a bit disappointed that Whatley and Chamberlin weren’t given more formal bows. The show ends, the stage goes dark, and the whole cast is already on stage. Both Whatley and Chamberlin had individual bows amongst the group, but neither get that moment of re-taking the stage. That triumphant walk from the wings to the center of everyone’s attention. This is not to sell the work of the rest of the cast short, but I just felt that their work deserved a bit more recognition.
While it’s not a wacky musical, The Miracle Worker is a story most people know, and it’s portrayed beautifully at The Covedale. You’ll feel something as you watch Annie bring Helen Keller into the world. It’s dramatic and thoughtful and extremely inspirational.
The Miracle Worker plays Thursday through Sunday until October 1. Tickets are available by calling 513-241-6550 or going to the Covedale website, www.cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com/ccpa