The story of Helen Keller's remarkable life has been inspiring books, movies and plays for more than a century, beginning with a 1919 silent film, Deliverance. Perhaps most iconic among Keller-inspired works is William Gibson's 1959 play The Miracle Worker, which not only won several Tony Awards but also was adapted into a successful film in 1962 starring Anne Bankcroft and Patty Duke, who had also starred in the Broadway production.
Now, The Miracle Worker has made its way to the Bluegrass with the Montana Repertory Theatre's national tour of the play, featured for one weekend only at the Lexington Opera House's Broadway Live series.
The Friday night performance I attended was a stirring testament to the triumphant determination of not only Keller, who became deaf and blind as a child in the late 19th century, but her teacher Annie Sullivan. However, the production as a whole was hindered by staid performances from the supporting cast.
It is fitting that Caitlin McRae's performance as Sullivan, the tough-as-nails spitfire who survived her own traumatic childhood, is responsible for a whopping portion of the show's overall vitality. She should tighten the consistency of her Irish pronunciations, but she oozes determination and passion and is a pleasure to watch. Hannah Appell's wordless portrayal of Keller as a young girl is also captivating and sincere. Watching this duo together, from the scenes of frustration, rebellion and emotional testing to Keller's stunning breakthrough as a result of Sullivan's work, is probably what audiences really pay to see; in that regard, this production does not disappoint.
With the exception of Lily Gladstone's warm, empathy-laden performance as Keller's mother, Kate, the supporting cast either underperforms or is underutilized. Scenes of Keller's family life, a rather fascinating holdover of the defeated Confederacy, are executed slowly and without sufficient authenticity or a satisfying mining of the familial conflicts Gibson wrote into the play.
The relationship between Keller's father, Captain Arthur Keller, and her half-brother James is a prime example of conflict which is underexplored by actors Jim Gall and Nick Pavelich, who respectively play the father and son duo. The pair have polished Southern accents, a commanding sense of physical poise, and particularly excel at delivering the play's occasional comedic moments, yet the father-son battle that structurally complements the mother-daughter story line is not as effective as it could be because the pair do not sufficiently peel back the external layers of their characters to expose the raw nerves of their struggle. Intellectually, I understood they were at odds with one another because of the words they were saying and, to a degree, their mannerisms, but I would like to have sensed a genuine psychological tug-of-war seeping into their characterizations.
I am not one to quibble with a script that has travelled the globe for half a century and won numerous awards to boot, but I am really not sure why the character Aunt Ev is included in the play at all. That's not to knock Therese Diekhans' able performance in a minor role, but the part does not move the narrative in any useful way except for perhaps establishing more historical context to Keller's upbringing.
If the play measures its success by the number of misty eyes by curtain, then this show succeeded, but the high/low energy seesaw between scenes with McRae and Appell and the rest of the cast made for an uneven experience, with Gladstone being a welcome thread of cohesion between them.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.