Oct 15

PCA’s ‘The Miracle Worker’ communicates Helen Keller’s amazing story

By Scott Orr, The Daily Courier – 10/11/2011

PRESCOTT – To see “The Miracle Worker” performed live at the Prescott Center for the Performing Arts is to simultaneously suspend disbelief and realize what an effort it is to stage this very physical play effectively.

And it is effective. For anyone who has never seen the film or the play, “The Miracle Worker” tells the true story of Helen Keller, a young deaf and blind girl, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The story is set in the period immediately following the Civil War, when such children were sometimes believed to be uncontrollable and placed in asylums.

Annie (Joanne Robertson, right) and Helen (Carly Fonda, left) have a breakthrough in communication with the help of a doll.

Helen, played by 10-year-old Carly Fonda, is indeed uncontrollable as the play opens. Fonda, acting in a role that has no dialogue, yet sees her on stage for nearly all of the show’s two hours, gives a nuanced performance.  “I have learned that you can (convey) words through your facial expressions,” she said.

The role requires violent behavior: Helen slaps, kicks and bites people, throws silverware, breaks dishes, and wreaks all manner of other destruction whenever she fails to get her way.  Annie (Joanne Robertson) gives as good as she gets, although Robertson said playing the part required a little extra help.  “It’s very physical,” she said. “I’m wearing kneepads and I have bruises all over.”

Supporting actor Justus Burkitt as Helen’s half-brother, James, steals nearly every scene he’s in, cracking pointed jokes and delivering sarcastic comments to Annie and his father, Captain Keller (Kevin Nissen). He acts as the comic relief in an otherwise very intense show, but his appearances never seem forced or extraneous.

Helen (Carly Fonda) acts up at the breakfast table while Annie (Joanne Robertson) assesses the situation in the Prescott Center for the Arts' production of "The Miracle Worker." Callaghan Howard, Kevin Nissen, Karla Burkitt, Lois Fazio and Justus Burkitt co-star.

The show is directed by Catherine Miller Hahn; this is her 60th production. She said it was not easy to stage.  “This one is very difficult. There’s lots of pieces to it, lots of scenes, lots of places,” she said. Because of the nature of the theatre (it is a converted church), plays like this one, with multiple sets, require some unusual techniques and staging.  “In our theater, we don’t have flies (cables to a tall ceiling) to take things up or down, so you have to figure out a way to move and weave it all,” Hahn said.

The set design takes advantage of the open space above the stage, allowing the upstairs spare bedroom in which Annie writes her diary entries to literally be upstairs, above the rest of the house. As usual for this theater, there are unavoidable viewblocks presented by the structural pillars of the church which stand at the front of the stage. It is surprising how frequently these relatively small obstructions block parts of the action at times.

If you know the story or have seen the film, you know how it ends. This production also includes a touching “extra” after the end of the play itself.

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