“The Miracle Worker” is the story of six-year-old Helen Keller, a wild, petulant child at that age, understandably so given that since infancy she could neither see nor hear nor speak.
Teacher Annie Sullivan, herself visually-challenged, enters into Helen’s life and through manual sign language frees the child from her dark and soundless world into one of understanding and feeling, physical and emotional.
The Pennsylvania Playhouse production of “The Miracle Worker,” which opened Sept. 30 and was seen Oct. 1 for this review, is a fitting tribute to William Gibson’s poignant and dramatic three-act play set in Alabama in the late 1880s. The play runs through Oct. 16, with performances at the theater along Illicks Mill Road, Bethlehem, at 8 p.m. Oct. 7, 8, 14 and 15; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6, and 13 and 3 p.m. Oct. 9 and 16.
The drama, based on Helen Keller’s 1903 autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” focuses on the often tumultuous battle of wills between Helen (Hannah Kurczeski) and Sullivan (Jenna McBreen). The script’s action scenes require immense energy, and both actors were up to the task. In their complex characterizations, Kurczeski and McBreen were able to compellingly transition from the purely physical conflict to the intensely sensitive expressions of utter despair and pure joy of discovery. When Helen kisses her teacher in the final scene, it is a believable tearful moment.
McBreen especially shines in Act 2 when she describes the asylum where she was brought up. She tells of the horrors with proper detachment and no pity. “It made me strong,” she pronounces with conviction.
Pennsylvania Playhouse has assembled an impressive cast of a dozen supporting actors. Jim Long as Captain Keller, Helen’s bombastic father, dominated most of the scenes he was in, just as his character dominated the Keller family. The strength of Long’s portrayal was such that he could be appropriately blustery when needed, but he could just as smoothly evolve into the loving father who misses his daughter, or the engaging gentleman walking off stage arm and arm with Miss Sullivan. No one-dimensional acting here.
Makenna Masenheimer was charming as Helen’s indulgent mother, adequately evoking the right balance between compassion and frustration, while maintaining the decorum of a Southern wife.
Brett Mathews maintained good stage presence and was convincing as Helen’s half-brother.
Because of the small cast and the intensity of the relationship between teacher and student, “The Miracle Worker” plays best in small houses. Director Clair Freeman has capitalized on the intimacy of the Playhouse space, allowing audience members to become close observers of the action: a family member or friend at the dining room table, or a neighbor watching nearby as Sullivan pumps water into Helen’s hand in the yard, repeating, “Water, water.”
Set designer Dan Lewis’ monochromatic set built on three levels adds to the intimacy and the almost effortless transitions from scene to scene. Every inch of the small thrust stage and part of the space right in front of the first rows is cleverly utilized. Lighting design by Brett Oliveira, especially the spot lighting of actor tableaus in the stop-action scenes, aids the rapid scene changes.
The recordings of Sullivan’s memories were awkward interruptions that did little to advance the play and were often difficult to understand.
“The Miracle Worker,” which debuted on Broadway in 1959 and received a best play Tony in 1960, is a story that, as Freeman’s director’s notes state, “strikes at the core of what makes us human; how we connect; how we communicate thought to each other.” In the Pennsylvania Playhouse production, the moving message of “The Miracle Worker” is more than adequately presented.