The Miracle Worker at SART
The miracle going on through Aug. 4 at the Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre is the collision of The Miracle Worker’s two superb lead performances: Sarah Laughland as Helen Keller and Amanda Ladd as Annie Sullivan.
In one riveting, nearly wordless scene in the dining room near the end of Act One, the young girl, Helen, and her newly appointed teacher, Annie, clash over who will get her way — and how to communicate discipline to a child who has not heard a word of language since a terrible illness left her blind and deaf at age 19 months.
Credit is due to both actors and their director, Jessica West, for creating such a dynamic, energetic — exhausting, even — scene without language that so vividly illustrates the emotions and determination of both characters. And that’s a full hour before the famous moment at the well pump, which will melt your heart and bring the tears flowing.
Theatergoers of a certain age may assume the story of Helen Keller is well known as those of her contemporaries, such as Alexander Graham Bell (who had a hand in Helen’s education) and Mark Twain (an early fan of Helen’s writing). But time has marched on, and SART theatergoers of all ages were struggling at intermission to recall whether they’d heard the tale before. (Anne Bancroft played Annie and Patty Duke was Helen in the Tony-winning 1959 Broadway production of William Gibson’s play, and both won Oscars for the 1962 film adaptation.) Here’s hoping the young people in the SART audience on the show’s first weekend realized this was a true story and hunted around on their smartphones to learn more.
Even those familiar with Helen’s story will be swept away by the SART production. Laughland may be more than a decade older than Helen was in real life (when Annie arrived, Helen was about seven years old), but the age difference is irrelevant as Laughland’s performance captures the spirit of the girl. This is not Laughland’s first production in the role, and her experience shows in her utterly natural demeanor and convincing physicality. At the curtain call, she seems to be squinting in the light, as if she has indeed been blind the two previous hours.
Matching her exhausting exercise is SART veteran and Mars Hill University graduate Ladd as Annie, the green young teacher from Massachusetts who has survived her own unimaginable tragedies. (Ladd’s monologue about Annie’s past is heartbreaking in part because of her melodrama-free presentation.) Helen may be the most technically difficult role, but Annie’s is the most dramatically challenging, as she often must speak aloud to no one, as well as channeling the difficult gender politics of 1880s Alabama.
The remaining roles are also well cast. Helen’s father, Capt. Arthur Keller, is a stubborn Confederate officer, given both a steely surface and a warm heart by Randy Noojin, Kate, Helen’s mother, is Sarah Helen-Land, who’s vulnerable and earnest throughout. The fourth family member is Helen’s grown half brother James (standing in for the two half-brothers she had in real life), played by Calum Kramer. Like his character, Kramer may seem outgunned in early going, but as James’ backbone stiffens, Kramer’s performance gains weight as well.
Kay Crew St. Clair makes a fine impression as an easily scandalized aunt, and Doug Hauschild and Timothy Wilds are credible authority figures in the Kellers’ and Annie’s lives, thin characters needed to spin the plot forward.
The complex, multi-leveled set is beautiful in its complex evocation of simplicity and gives West the spaces she needs to stage the story, including a living room, dining room, upstairs bedroom, garden cottage and, of course, that water pump in the garden, standing like a talisman to those who know the tale or just a remarkably vivid detail to newcomers. Brianna Brunner is responsible for a large number of convincing period props (the dolls are marvelous), and the stage is lit — a difficult job well done, with so many separate spaces — by Andrew Zebroski and his assistant Braeden Johnson. Sue Fair’s sharp costumes nicely delineate the time and the characters’ social standing. Sound, which requires a number of special effects, is by Cassidy Robbins. Stage management is led by Tia Turner, assisted by Kennedi Traynor, Tristan Brown and Ms. Brunner.
The Miracle Worker may seem like a workhorse kind of play, but its remarkable story remains relevant and incredibly moving — at least when led by such a team as SART has put together. Bring tissues.
The Miracle Worker runs through Aug. 4 at SART on the campus of Mars Hill University. For schedule details and tickets, visit sartplays.com.
(Photos courtesy of SART)