The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, Wheelock Family Theatre, 4/13/12-5/13/12, http://www.wheelockfamilytheatre.org/feature-performance.aspx.
Reviewed by Kate Lonberg-Lew
(Boston, MA) The story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan is known worldwide. The drama of Sullivan’s struggle to reach a child locked away by blindness and deafness is well covered in cinema, theater, and literature. But Helen was not the only one that Sullivan would need to teach in order to be successful. Before she could reach Helen, she would need to teach the Kellers the dangers of pity and self-indulgence. They would need to learn to be strong. Like the characters in the play, Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of The Miracle Worker struggles.
Eight year-old Audree Headquist shines as Helen Keller. Her performance is brave and controlled, showing maturity beyond her years. Her free-flowing movement allows for Helen’s “wild-child” nature to come through in a way that is natural and genuine. She refrains from giving in to the temptation of hysterics, something that Neal Gusrafson (Mr. Keller) and Christine Power (Kate) fall prey to on more than one occasion. Their over-dramatization prevents the audience form connecting with the parents and their desperation. Brittany Rolfs’ (Annie Sullivan) performance is strong, if awkward at times. Both Gusrafson and Rolfs grow on you as the production progresses. They each have moments that feel genuine. In fact, some of the best moments of the play are interactions between the two.
The sub-plot, the strained relationship between the son, James (Robert St. Laurence) and Mr. Keller falls short of its mark. It lacks energy and depth. So, despite Laurnece’s effort, it fails to leave an impression. Though it does not detract from the main plot, it doesn’t enrich it, either.
The set and blocking are strong but not without flaws. Blocking aids Headquist’s performance by allowing her well-earned moments to rest onstage with her face turned from the audience. The set, a depiction of the Keller home, is simple and open to allow for maximum viewing. However, the lack of walls and some misplaced blocking mean that props frequently fall out of the house.
The script leans toward the melodramatic, especially the voice-overs of a young Annie and the brother she could not save. While clearly meant to provide Sullivan’s motivation, it was overdone and lacked clarity. In addition, what motivation it does provide is likely to missed or misunderstood by younger viewers.
Despite its weaknesses, Wheelock Family Theatre’s presentation and the script come together to create a production that is engaging and thoughtful. And it is worth the trip to see budding eight year-old actress Aurdree Headquist.