Keller Keeps Tugging at Our Emotions

Theatre Reviews: The Miracle Worker and I’ll Eat You LastMiracle Worker

By Perry Tannenbaum

With most dramas, I find that successive productions I review tend to exert less of a powerful tug on my emotions each time I see the same drama again. Yet I’ve found quite the opposite to be true of The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s 1960 Tony Award winner for Best Play, the chronicle of young Annie Sullivan’s diligent efforts – on her first paying job and her first plunge into the Deep South – to reach the deaf-and-blind Helen Keller and teach her the concept of language.

Last time I covered The Miracle Worker at CPCC in 2008, I found myself choking back sobs when I merely saw the furshlugginer water pump at the start of Act 2. So I was grateful, in a way, to see the pump already in place downstage when I ambled toward my seat for the current production at Theatre Charlotte. Gillian Albinski’s set design, a rather bland thing compared to some of the artistry I’ve seen at the Queens Road barn, seemed to be building up my immunity.

I was mistaken, for it isn’t until intermission that they set up the little guesthouse where Annie is allowed to have exclusive care of Helen for two weeks, during which time she must repair their relationship, tame the child’s wildness, and give her the keys to communication. Just seeing the contours of that secluded place brought on a surge of emotions that I fought to hold in check.

When you think of it, The Miracle Worker is rather unique in establishing powerful associations with each of its different locales at the Kellers’. There’s the upstairs bedroom where Annie must be rescued by ladder because she allows Helen to outsmart her and lock her in during their first encounter. Nor do we forget the dining room, scene of two epic battles between Helen and Annie – and the place where James finally stands up to his imperious father, Captain Keller.

Okay, so the production levels don’t rival the notorious 2003 Charlotte Rep production that was envisioned as a launching pad for Hilary Swank’s Broadway debut. (Never happened, the producers’ verdict on what we saw.) But the gulf between those Broadway-bound costumes and those by Luci Wilson isn’t ridiculously wide at all, and while Theatre Charlotte’s Helen wasn’t victorious in any nationwide search, I think you’ll find Emily Bowers quite extraordinary.

There is never a sense that director Paige Johnston Thomas is trying to replicate the iconic 1962 film, which brought fresh awards to Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, the original Broadway stars. Quite the contrary: Thomas makes it easier for Sarah Woldum in her Charlotte debut as Annie Sullivan by allowing her to drop the Irish accent that plagued Swank, and Alex Duckworth – notwithstanding his syrupy drawl – may be the least youthful James that I’ve seen.

Throughout the evening, beginning when Kate Keller discovers her daughter’s disabilities upstairs in the nursery, lighting designer Chris Timmons and music composer Grover Smith make telling contributions. Caylyn Temple as Kate and Philip Robertson as Captain Keller do a beautiful job of setting up the dignified family tone. While it’s customary for the Captain to show a lack of love for his daughter – he’s taken aback when Annie calls him on it – Robertson seems to want to love Helen more than any father I’ve seen. Besides the crippling excess of motherly indulgence, Temple partners well with Duckworth in the somewhat awkward relationship between Kate and her stepson.

Woldum is certainly a more youthful Annie than Swank was, more youthful than Joanna Gerdy was when Theatre Charlotte last presented Miracle Worker in 1997. That is the dimension I most love about this production. Sullivan’s age – she’s merely 20 – is arguably what makes her most unfit for the challenge she’s undertaking. Not only can we see Annie’s youth peeping through here, we can perceive how it becomes a double asset when the challenge is engaged.

It’s a matter of sheer physical vitality when Annie confronts Helen’s unruliness in the dinner table scenes and at the guesthouse, but it’s also a matter of empathy. I’m not a big fan of the flashback interludes, when Annie recalls her younger brother’s death, but I’m more reconciled to them in this production, and Timmons delineates them well with his lighting.

Charles Holmes gets credit for the fine fight choreography when the action heats up and the spoons begin to fly, but it’s Bowers’ lack of inhibition that makes it all work. There’s always enough luminosity in her blankest expressions for us to believe in her openness, and when she’s finally sitting quietly and eating at the guesthouse, I found a tinge of pride amid Helen’s exhausted submission.

Maybe the reason I find The Miracle Worker so compelling after all these years is the fact that it becomes less dated with the passage of time. The more I’ve learned about child development and the acquisition of language, the more spot-on Annie’s observations on these subjects have become. One time, the water pump gets to me; the next time, the guest cottage floors me. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m fighting back tears the next time I see Sullivan lifting the stupid egg. I can only envy those of you who may be just beginning your journeys with this rich drama. It has surprising, rewarding depths.

Anne Lambert as Sue Mengers 3 Feb 2016

An elaborate sofa and its many pillows becomes a luxuriant throne when the star of I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers appears to graciously grant us an audience at UpStage in NoDa. Born into a Jewish family in Hamburg, Mengers tells us how her family fled Nazi Germany in 1938 and wound up in Utica, New York – not the most likely beginnings for a woman who would become a Hollywood superagent, whose clientele included Faye Dunaway, Candice Bergen, Michael Caine, Burt Reynolds, Cybill Shepherd, and – preeminently – Barbra Streisand.

John Logan’s one-woman script memorialized Mengers on Broadway, in a production starring Bette Midler, less than two years after her death in 2011. Anne Lambert is the leading lady here in a performance that was shaped in a three-weekend run up in Cornelius before settling into NoDa last weekend and continuing through Sunday. It’s obvious that Mengers considers herself royalty, for she favors us with her rules on throwing a party and succeeding as an agent.

There’s a phone by her right arm that she hopes will ring so that she might heal a troublesome rift with La Barbra. Meanwhile, before we arrive at those circumstances, Mengers dishes on her struggles with Sissy Spacek, Ali McGraw, and Steve McQueen. Landing the Oscar-winning role of Popeye Doyle for Gene Hackman in The French Connection is clearly her ultimate triumph, and Lambert can tell it in spellbinding detail.

Problems only creep into this performance with the chronic buzzing of the electronics – the lights, I’m guessing – compounded by Lambert’s tendency to swallow the ends of punch lines she’s tossing off. Otherwise, she bridges the moments of tension and relaxation well, calling upon an audience member to fetch her a jewelry box stocked with joints and a refill from the bar. There are moments when she could stand to be meaner and more arrogant while she’s getting high, but that’s showbiz.

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