The Miracle Worker

Powerful Performances Make Miracle Worker a Must-See

Powerful performances in a gripping true story make The Miracle Worker a play you must see.  Now on stage at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, it’s an old play but as compelling as ever.  The Miracle Worker opened on Broadway in 1959 and took several Tony awards in 1960 including best play, best director, and best lead actress for Anne Bancroft.  In 1962 it became a movie, with both Broadway stars Anne Bancroft and the young Patty Duke.  The movie proved very popular with Bancroft winning best actress and Duke, at the age of 16, taking the Oscar for best supporting actress.

The Miracle Worker is the story, set in 1887, of Annie Sullivan who is hired to teach six-year-old Helen Keller.  Little Helen has been blind and deaf since infancy due to a severe illness, which her doctor calls “acute congestion of the stomach and brain”.  Helen is frustrated by her inability to communicate with her parents, their housekeeper, her aunt and brother.  She lives like an animal, grabbing food by the handful off their plates as she circles the dinner table, throwing violent tantrums when she doesn’t get her own way. 

Her parents, not able to handle her, consider putting her in an asylum.  Mother Katie begs for one last chance to seek help, which brings Annie Sullivan to their home where she trains Helen to communicate.  Annie teaches Helen sign language, forming the letters in Helen’s hand.  But Helen is obstinate and although she learns the signs, she doesn’t know what they mean. There are horrific physical fights between Annie and Helen in the battle of wills. The play culminates in the famous scene at the well, where Annie, angry that Helen has thrown a pitcher of water at the dinner table, drags her to the well to refill it.  As the cold water is pumped over her hand, Helen finally comprehends that the letters being spelled in her hand have meaning.

Playwright William Gibson has woven other interesting pieces into the story.  There is the strained relationship between Helen’s father Captain Keller and her half-brother (his son) James.  Even though it is 1887, the shadow of the Civil War (which ended in 1865) still lingers over this Alabama household – they are suspicious of Annie, whom they view as a northern Yankee.

The audience hears heart-wrenching flashbacks that haunt Annie – her horrific memories of living in a poorhouse, the death of her sick brother Jimmie, her loss of vision and many eye operations.

Shannon Currie is brilliant as Annie Sullivan.  The audience feels her troubled soul, and understands her need for success with Helen.  We see her move from just seeing Helen as a challenge, to genuinely caring for her as a person.

Clara Kushnir is excellent in the demanding role of Helen Keller.  We believe her eyes are unseeing, and she has every detail of a deaf-blind person’s movements.  She feels her way around the set, doing little things like tapping the step with her toe before she climbs the stairs.  I was impressed with young Clara last year when she played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird at Stratford Festival.  We will be watching for her in the future.

Playing the mother, Katie Keller, is Jackie Mustakas who makes us feel her anguish when she learns Helen can’t see and hear.  Rob McClure as Captain Keller gives us the staunch, proud southerner who struggles with Annie Sullivan’s strength.  Thomas Duplessie is the misunderstood half-brother of Helen, who is only seeking his father’s approval.  Duplessie makes the character more sympathetic as the play progresses.  The supporting cast is all excellent, including a class of blind girls.

Credit must go to Director Marti Maraden for taking a story that most of us know well and still completely holding our attention to the end.  Maraden brought us the very intense Death of a Salesman in 2017, also at St. Jacobs.  It was similarly well cast and completely gripping.

Of special note in this production of The Miracle Worker are the fight scenes.  Currie and Kushnir do battle in the bedroom, at the cottage, and in the dining room scene – all fights are very physical and completely realistic.  I hope they are able to keep it up for the duration of the run without becoming too bruised.  The hits, kicks and wrestling moves are astounding.

The set and costumes create the feel of the Deep South – the beautiful home is created with detail, and women’s dresses are well done.  Even Helen looks like a southern belle.

I have only one minor concern.  I found the accents inconsistent.  Annie Sullivan is of Irish descent, so there were some instances where she spoke with an Irish lilt, but it wasn’t always evident.  As well, with some of the Southerners, the Alabama drawl came and went.  Perhaps the accents will even out as the run progresses.

Nevertheless, a brilliant script, detailed direction, and superior performances make this a play you don’t want to miss.  Even though you know that Helen Keller goes on to become a famous scholar and lecturer, you will feel the emotion when she is finally able to unlock her dark, silent world.

The Miracle Worker continues with eight shows a week until May 12 at St. Jacobs Country Playhouse, in St. Jacobs.  Tickets are available by calling Toll Free 1-855-372-9866 or Local Box Office 519-747-7788 or check www.draytonentertainment.com

Photo: Rob McClure as Captain Keller, Shannon Currie as Annie Sullivan, Clara Kushnir as Helen Keller, and Jackie Mustakas as Katie Keller.  Photo by Liisa Steinwedel.

The Miracle Worker
By William Gibson
Directed by Marti Maraden
Performed by Shannon Currie, Clara Kushnir, Thomas Duplessie, Marcia Johnson, Gabrielle Jones, Omar Alex Khan, Talia Lowell, Rob McClure, Gerry Mendicino, Jackie Mustakas, Bryce Wynter, plus alternating children’s groups.
St Jacobs Country Playhouse
Produced by Drayton Entertainment
April 24 to May 12, 2019
Reviewed by Mary Alderson

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