Theater review

Chances are, if you’re old enough to read this, you’ve already encountered The Miracle Worker. Perhaps you read the play in high school. Or you saw a made-for-TV version. Or you recall the Oscar-winning performances by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the classic 1962 film.

It might seem like we don’t need to experience this piece of mid-20th century American theater again. But Village Players is offering a powerful production of William Gibson’s legendary work. Well-known actress, writer and storyteller Megan Wells directs the absorbing new mounting of this inspirational true story.

It’s really nicely done.

The play is set in Alabama in the 1880s – just two decades after the Civil War. Upon her arrival at the Keller home from Boston, an inexperienced half-blind teacher barely out of her teens, Annie Sullivan (played by Zia Okocha), immediately becomes locked in a test of will with an unruly child who cannot see, hear or speak – Helen (played by Alex Griffin). Helen’s family, out of pity and misguided love, has let her become dangerously spoiled, even brutal. Her desperate parents, on the verge of committing their daughter to an asylum for the mentally ill, have almost given up hope.

Annie’s efforts to discipline her headstrong pupil and give her the gift of language form the central conflict of the play. During a breakfast table battle, the dining room is virtually wrecked but Helen’s napkin ends up folded.

The old joke about this drama is that the actress playing young Helen Keller has only one word to memorize: “Wah-wah.” But, of course, despite the lack of lines it’s an incredibly complicated, physically demanding role. Alex Griffin is totally credible as the blind, deaf, and mute girl, maintaining exceptional stage concentration for over two hours. Griffin is especially convincing in the first half of the play as an almost feral “wild child”- flailing, groping, and emitting inarticulate grunts. She conveys Helen’s desperation, her rage and sadness, with great conviction.

Okocha commands the stage as the patient teacher who is determined to break through the seemingly impenetrable wall that exists between Helen and the world. Sight-impaired herself, Annie Sullivan perseveres and battles the Keller family. Using a tough love approach, she refuses to grant the misunderstood child any special privileges or considerations, forcibly trying to teach Helen to perform simple civilized acts like using a spoon and napkin at the dinner table rather than running around grabbing food off everyone’s plate. Okocha also effectively conveys the young teacher’s loneliness and insecurity.

Miss Sullivan has endured nine different eye surgeries. During much of the play she wears dark glasses.

Annie is troubled by phantom flashbacks from her nightmarish past. In other productions I’ve seen, these haunting glimpses of memory are often disorienting and confusing. But here these brief recollections – back to the public asylum where Annie and her little sister were virtually imprisoned – are artfully illustrated. At times, the performers appear through a blue sheer curtain that conveys not only the haze of memory but also, perhaps, Annie Sullivan’s own impaired vision.

The imperious Captain Keller, Helen’s newspaper editor father, is solidly portrayed by Brian Rabinowitz. The actor brings shading to the role, making this father three-dimensional while conveying the love and decency beneath his authoritarian Victorian father façade.

Jocelyn Mills is lovely and loving as Helen’s mother, who proves to be surprisingly strong-willed.

Kevin Meece provides depth as Helen’s somewhat older half-brother who can’t get his father to pay any attention to him because the family’s focus seems to be entirely on Helen.

Marilyn Darnall nicely plays Aunt Ev, one of those chatty, somewhat intrusive kinfolk so common in shows about the Old South.

Others cast members are Penny Galazkiewicz, Karen Gerbig, Vito Petruzzelli, Rachel Pospisil, and Jake Walczyk.

This production alters a few aspects of the play. There have been some slight nips and tucks. Also, in the haunting Dickensian flashback sequences, Helen’s dead brother Jimmy has become a little girl named Gemma. She’s played by an adorable child actress named Eden Elyse Strong.

The production effectively employs color-blind casting. White actors play the black servants. Black women play Annie Sullivan and her little sister, the daughters of Irish potato-famine immigrants. In reality, of course, a former Confederate officer would not have hired a Yankee black woman as a governess.

The intimate performance space of the Village Players Studio Theater is able to accommodate the variety of locations required, from the Kellers’ dining room to a summer cottage on their property. There’s even a working outdoor water pump for the climactic scene where Helen finally cracks the code and understands the nouns she’s learned through sign language.

No credit is listed in the program for a sound engineer but the sound effects – including train station noise, a violin playing “Dixie” and a thunderstorm – are quite convincing.

Costumes are by Jeanne Petruzzelli. Dan Traube is Village Players’ new artistic director. The stage manager is Beth Zupec. Claire Shunk is the production intern.

As a historical footnote, people seem to have forgotten that Helen Keller was a lot more than just a little girl who overcame some steep limitations. She went on to become a leading early 20th century activist: a suffragette, a pacifist, a supporter of birth control and workers’ rights, and a radical Socialist. Yes, the S word. I wonder what Miss Keller would have to say about some of our current hot topics.

In 1960, when she was turning 80, I was in eighth grade. I did my last book report that year on her autobiographical Story of My Life. I wrote her a birthday fan letter and included a copy of my book report. To my surprise, I received a typed thank you note that Miss Keller herself had signed. Her somewhat oversized, hand-printed signature looked as though she’d carefully written between two rulers to keep her block letters in a straight line. The fact that this amazing woman took the time to write to a child always impressed me deeply.

Doug Deuchler, a longtime educator, is an Oak Parker who, when not reviewing community theater for Wednesday Journal, is a stand-up comic, a local tour guide and docent, and author of several books about Oak Park and neighboring communities.

The Miracle Worker

  • 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 4
  • $20; $16 for students, seniors. Group rates for 6 or more
  • Thursday, Sunday shows are 2-for-1
  • Village Players Performing Arts Center, 1010 Madison St., Oak Park
  • or 866-764-1010