A Magical 'Miracle'

By Geary Danihy

In his Poetics, Aristotle suggests that tragedy raises the emotions of pity and fear in the audience, then purifies or purges them. This is commonly referred to as catharsis. Although Aristotle was writing about tragedy, his theory of catharsis can easily be applied to theater in general, in that there are certain productions that draw the audience in, take hold of the audience’s collective emotions and then release them in a way that is cleansing and soul-fulfilling.

If proof be demanded of this, all one need do is drive out to Ivoryton to take in The Miracle Worker, for I defy anyone to enter the Keller household and watch Annie Sullivan (Andrea Maulella) fight for the mind and soul of Helen Keller (Jenilee Simons Marques) and not come away emotionally shriven.

Helen Keller’s story is well known. Born a healthy child into an upper middle-class family in late nineteenth-century Alabama, she was stricken by a fever while still in her crib, a fever that stole her sight and hearing. Her family, unsure of how to care for its now severely debilitated daughter, essentially allowed her to grow up wild. Thus, as a young girl, she was a frustrated, whirling sea of misunderstood, thwarted and unarticulated emotions that on a regular basis overwhelmed the family.

Desperate, and considering institutionalization of an essentially feral child, the family sought outside help, and it arrived in the form of Annie Sullivan, a young woman who, having been blind herself, as well as institutionalized as a child, bore her own scars and battled on a regular basis against the siren call of her own demons of despair.

With Sullivan’s arrival at the Keller home there is an immediate cultural clash – independent, Northern girl meets Southern post-bellum social strictures, with young Helen’s mind and soul the prize to be won in this war of wills. What follows in this wonderful production adroitly directed by Jacqueline Hubbard, the Playhouse’s executive/artistic director, is sheer theatrical magic.

The play rises or falls on the interaction between the two actors who play the central characters, Sullivan and the young Helen Keller, and the Playhouse is blessed with Maulella and Marques in these roles.

Maulella, who won the Connecticut Critics Circle award for best actress for her work in the Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Tryst, is absolutely mesmerizing as the feisty, tart-tongued Sullivan. She has, perhaps with the directorial help of Hubbard, inculcated a physical idiosyncrasy into her performance that captures both the subservient position of the Irish in nineteenth-century America and the subordinate position of women in general in a land where males still ruled: in any confrontation she stands tall but bows her head, then looks up at her interlocutor above her dark glasses, worn because light offends her eyes. It’s a wonderful, physical image of the social and intellectual constraints she faces and slyly seeks to overcome.

Maulella is a strong presence on the stage, and if the actress who plays Helen cannot match this strength and give as good as she gets, then the play becomes a fairy tale. Happily, Marques is more than up to the physical, emotional and psychological challenges of the role. This young lady, who from the age of one and a half has been a student at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, captures the essence of a human being locked inside herself, intelligent yet stymied by the cards life has dealt her.

The first major confrontation between Sullivan and the young Helen Keller is a tour de force of physical and emotional warfare, and the subsequent confrontations, wonderfully modulated and intelligently manipulated by playwright William Gibson, brings the audience to a climax that is excruciatingly honest and beautiful, and a dénouement that is soulfully satisfying.

Supporting the wonderful work of Maulella and Marques are Elizabeth Erwin as Helen’s mother and Bif Carrington as Helen’s father. Erwin is both obsequious, as befits a Southern wife of the time, and determined when it comes to the well-being of her daughter, and Carrington captures the troubled blend of a Southern male who clings to the past yet senses that life as he knows it may well be changing, especially when confronted by such a primal force as Annie Sullivan. This force affects James (Michael Raver), Keller’s son from a previous marriage, and although Raver may go too far into the realm of sarcasm, he pulls himself back to be an effective part of the play’s climax.

There is little wrong with this production as directed by Hubbbard. One might quibble that the audience’s attention is unnecessarily diverted at times by the fact that Helen’s room is in a stage-left loft, and that while actors are delivering lines center stage, the mere presence of Helen and her teacher up in this loft draws attention away from what is going on elsewhere, but that, unfortunately, cannot be corrected, for wherever Maulella and Marques go on stage, the eye follows, and this is as it should be.

One goes to the theater for many reasons, but the primary reason is and always has been to be taken up into an artifice that drives a stake into our complacent hearts and demands that we take notice of what it means to be human, with all the failures, foibles and, yes, occasional triumphs that this entails.

Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller triumph, and we are all the better for it, and their triumph is beautifully captured in the Ivoryton Playhouse’s production of The Miracle Worker. If you can, find a way to wend your way out to Ivoryton. You won’t regret – or forget – the trip. 

 The Miracle Worker runs through Sunday, Oct. 11. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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