All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“The Miracle Worker” presents a great challenge for the young actress charged with playing an unruly Helen Keller. She must convey intelligence, and even guile, while being a wild, restless spirit permitted total license to misbehave by parents who indulge her mischief because she is blind and deaf, the blindness coming from a disease when Helen was an infant.
Lexi Gwynn more than meets the challenge. Playing Helen at the Media Theatre, Gwynn personifies abandon as she flails through life ever-reaching to find out what is around her. She also exudes brattiness. There is as much pride as curiosity in her expression as she wanders around her family table and takes food off of each plate instead of sitting in her own place and eating properly with utensils.
Best of all Gywnn captures Helen’s wariness. She plays the young girl as having the perception of a cat, always sensing the vibrations in the air and gleaning from them the mood and tone of a situation. This intuition gives Helen cues when to pay attention and when to cause mayhem. Whatever she does, she knows she won’t be chastised by her parents or aunt. The worst she might suffer is a sarcastic verbal slight from her half-brother, James, whom she can’t hear anyhow.
Gwynn’s movements and expressions create a strong impression of Helen. She is a battler who will rebel at any moment, quickly turning her constantly searching hands to fists to ward off someone she thinks is going to discipline or stop her. Gwynn’s face, always alert with a look of anticipation or expectation, becomes nasty and determined when Helen gets angry.
Tantrums are common, but they increase when Helen’s parents enlist a teacher from a Boston institution for the blind to come to their Alabama home to tutor and train her.
When Annie Sullivan arrives from Massachusetts, she realizes her job is to tame Helen.
Annie is also perceptive. She knows from the beginning that Helen is smart and can figure out more than her family suspects. She also knows Helen is spoiled and can always depend on the succor of her parents when Annie is strict or fights back, both in defense and to show who is the bigger and stronger.
The Media production tells the Keller story, and Annie’s contribution to it, well, but on opening night, I thought it was a bit under ripe and needed a few more performances to gel. All of the ingredients are there. Gwynn is already in performance mode, but I sensed Jennie Eisenhower needed more time to grow into Annie, and some scenes that have the definite potential to rivet need to coalesce more. On opening night, they seemed stock and more spoken than acted in spite of good blocking and pacing by the director, Jesse Cline. My intuition tells me it is a matter of time until the show comes completely together and that by the time this review posts, the production will be tighter and more poignant.
“The Miracle Worker” is a play about warring tenacity. Helen, though aware there may be more to the world than she can experience or partake in, wants to preserve the undisciplined independence her parents allow her. Gwynn’s motions may indicate a child who is grasping for more and trying to pull answers out of the air, but Helen has learned she rules the family roost in significant ways. She will be indulged, and she is not happy about being taught about boundaries, conventions, manners, and the relation between one thing to another.
Annie is a woman on a mission. Her dilemma in the beginning is it’s her first mission. She is untried, barely having finished her own education. Before she leaves the Perkins Institution in Boston, she complains she may not be ready for such an assignment. She also knows she wants to make a living in the world rather than to be dependent on Perkins or any other home that helps the blind. An operation has restored some level of sight, so Annie has an advantage in her showdowns with Helen, if only because she can she where she is and what she’s doing.
One of the coups of Cline’s production in a scene in which Helen locks Annie is her room and takes the key, leaving the teacher to call for help. Annie traces Helen to a pump on the Keller property and arrives just in time to see Helen take the key from her pocket, hold it in the air and stare at is as if she could see it, and throw it down a well where it can’t be easily recovered. Gwynn is exceptional in this scene, and the look on Eisenhower’s face, a combination of anger, horror, wonder, and enlightenment is amazing. You see Annie go from being livid to realizing that Helen’s ploy confirms her assessment that Helen is more than usually bright and more advanced in cause-and-effect thinking than her parents imagined. She starts by wanting to thrash Helen and ends by reluctantly but definitely admiring her student’s ingenuity. Playwright William Gibson has Annie turn her ire into a teaching moment. Emotional and miffed at Helen, Annie indelicately pours water on the girl’s hands but takes the time to spell ‘water’ in her palms. While showing Helen who is supposed to be in control, she also wants to make the most of this new and sure sign that Helen may, with continued drilling, understand the relationship between words and the world at large and, more, to associate words with objects and substances. As Annie says whenever she spells in Helen’s hands, “It has a name.”
Given scenes, such as the one described above, give intensity to the Media’s “Miracle Worker.” In general, I thought the production needed more cohesion that would elevate it from being solid storytelling to gripping drama.
While the acting is good, it is matter-of-fact. People say their lines well, but they don’t seem to be building a world or creating a dramatic setting. Lexi Gwynn is the only one who truly breaks through and makes you watch and think about everything she’s doing.
Gwynn is a force of nature, the only thing Helen can be without the guidance and breeding to civilize her and order her thoughts. One place she has to squelch her all-out portrayal is in the crucial scene in which Annie confronts the Keller family and says they undermine all she is attempting to accomplish when they coddle and comfort Helen after Annie disciplines her and tries to coax her to do behave correctly. Gwynn’s screams drown out what Eisenhower and the other actors are saying. You can the sense of conflict and see how determined everyone is to talk, but it would be better if Gwynn suppressed some screams to allow her castmates to be audible. The scene is a pivotal one and needs to he more involving.
Jennie Eisenhower’s performance comes most into its own during the second act when Annie is given full control over Helen after she persuades the Kellers to let use an isolated cottage on their property to have Helen alone and see what progress is made.
During these scenes a bond is forged between Eisenhower and Gwynn, and a lot of the texture that seemed missing from earlier segments of the production emerges more fully, leading to a genuine sense of satisfaction at the end.
While Eisenhower and Gwynn dominate the production, Cline makes the Keller family a more integral part of his staging than is usually seen. Alex Kryger is particularly effective as Helen’s half-brother who tolerates his little sister because for the sake of family peace but who sees her guile and who comments wryly on its dictatorial effect. Hillary Parker, as Helen’s mother, is ready with a comforting hug and maternal solace if anything discomfits Helen, even when she, Mrs. Keller, initiates the discipline. Andrew Criss finds the sternness in Captain Keller, Helen’s father and wants Annie’s work to have instantaneous results he would want from his workers. The young man who has to be rescued from Helen’s wrath does a fine job in his role.
Matthew Miller’s set handily delineates the Keller home while giving Gywnn space to wander and Helen and Annie room to carry out their physical battles, well staged by Michael Cosenza. K. Whitney Roger’s costumes are right for the period and the characters. Troy Martin O’Shia’s lighting is effective and helps to accentuate the scene in which Helen steals and gets rid of Annie’s door key.
“The Miracle Worker” runs through Sunday, February 15, at the Media Theatre, 104 East State Street, in Media, Pa. Showtime are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $42 with discounts for children and seniors and can be obtained by calling 610-891-0100 or by visiting www.mediatheatre.org.