Whatever deficiencies in writing or presentation may surface with William Gibson's 1959 The Miracle Worker--the story of how teacher Anne Sullivan struggled to connect deaf-blind Helen Keller with the outside world--the play can succeed through strong work by the two lead actresses. And succeed it does in Arizona Repertory Theatre's current production at the University of Arizona.
In 1887, the 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, who'd gone mostly blind in early childhood, left a Boston institute where she'd been educated and had undergone a series of painful surgeries to restore her vision. Job prospects seemed limited, but she took a position with the privileged Keller family in Alabama. Little Helen was just turning 7 at the time, and had her home in a continual uproar.
At 19 months old, she'd gone deaf and blind after a bout of scarlet fever or meningitis. Her loving family had refused to send her off to an asylum, but had raised her with such indulgence that Helen was nearly feral--demanding, rude and prone to tantrums, like some little wild animal the Kellers had brought into their home but not bothered to housebreak.
Sullivan's first job was to get Helen under control and better socialized, and she realized that the only way to do that was to integrate the girl better with the world around her, and the best way to do that would be to introduce her to language: the concept that words, spoken or signed, represent objects and ideas, and can be shared with others.
Now, Helen wasn't exactly isolated. She already had a large repertory of homegrown gestures with which she could make her demands; Gibson's play barely touches on this, choosing to depict Sullivan as the Yankee savior who brings language and civility to the benighted South.
Well, OK, maybe The Miracle Worker isn't really much of a Reconstruction parable, but that's one of many things that Gibson occasionally hints at without developing. What about the relationship between the paterfamilias, Capt. Arthur Keller, and his son from an earlier marriage? It's supposed to be tense and full of conflict despite the bond between the two, a parallel to what's going on between Annie and Helen, but Gibson just skims over the situation. It seems especially facile when, as in this production (directed by Stephanie Campbell), the son (played by Aaron Shand) has enough backbone that he can stand up, however casually, to his father's intimidation, and the Captain (Scott Reynolds) is soft enough that his temper isn't very threatening.
Similarly, Helen's mother (well played by Charlotte Bernhardt), while a sympathetic figure, isn't much more than a sketch. The Keller family dynamics that do not involve Helen barely register. So we have to focus on Helen and Annie, and there, at least, the writing and the production are more than satisfactory.
Young Alexandra Cockrell must have spent a fair amount of time observing the sounds and gestures of deaf-blind children, and then brought a bit of her own wildness to the role of Helen. This wasn't just the insulting, goofball flailing you used to see in Helen Keller impersonations on schoolgrounds until just a few years ago (remember, Keller lived until 1968, and remained a cultural icon for some time thereafter, complete with her own cruel jokes). Instead, we got a clear depiction of young Helen's frustration, desperation and sly, abusive sense of humor.
As Annie Sullivan, UA senior Richelle Meiss adds another top-notch performance to her résumé. (She was last seen as the scene-stealing Old Lady in the UA's Candide, and she was a fine Ophelia in Live Theatre Workshop's hip Hamlet.) Perhaps she softened her character's rough edges a bit--the script implies that Annie should be more blunt and tactless than this--but Meiss nicely conveys Annie's dual nature: resilient and demanding almost to the point of arrogance among people, yet full of doubt and sometimes terror in private, when she's haunted by memories of her dead brother.
The two actresses work very well together, whether in the quiet excitement of Annie spelling out words in Helen's palm--words that Helen may or may not comprehend, even though it seems she does--or in the celebrated knock-down, drag-out fight in which Annie tries to correct Helen's reprehensible table manners.
Lisa Marie Eckman's costumes seem just right for the period and place, and Ashley Stephenson has done a good job of creating sets that are suggestive yet not too crowded with detail. Overall, though, this production of The Miracle Worker depends a bit too much on suggestion rather than showing us something concrete: The focus on Helen and Annie to the exclusion of a deeper field of vision that takes in the rest of their world creates a production that is, perhaps somehow appropriately, severely myopic.