OLNEY -- In William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," Annie Sullivan, the novice teacher hired to instruct Helen Keller, believes the key to learning is language. Instead, she learns the key is love. That's the play's real miracle.
Thanks largely to MaryBeth Wise's layered portrayal of Annie, Olney Theatre's production teaches this lesson well. Among the script's creakier elements are the flashbacks in which Annie relives the painful memories of her younger brother, whose death has left her with a firm resolve never to love again. Yet Wise shows us how these memories forged the obstinate streak that made Annie not only a tireless teacher, but a needy human being -- stubbornly determined to deny that need.
This comes across despite the histrionic tone of director Jim Petosa's production -- a tone that surfaces in the very first scene, when the Kellers discover that their infant daughter is deaf and blind. However, it reaches its peak in Carolyn Pasquantonio's fever-pitched portrayal of Helen Keller.
Even the most tantrum-prone little girl varies her tantrums, but Pasquantonio's hysteria never wavers. In the climactic scene, when Helen finally discovers the meaning of words, the actress responds with an outburst equal in intensity to her earlier reactions to being deprived of food -- a frequent occurrence since Annie refuses to tolerate Helen's uncivilized table manners. In most productions, the initial meal-time battle is one of the most dramatic scenes; at Olney it is merely one skirmish among many.
Fortunately, Helen Hedman modulates her portrayal of Helen's mother after the opening scene; in fact, she leaves no question of the character's love for her daughter and admiration for Annie. Other affecting performances are delivered by Patrick McCluskey as Helen's cocky older half-brother and Megan Morgan as the family's sweet-tempered maid. Only Traber Burns, as Helen's father, errs on the side of understatement, but the contrast is almost refreshing in a production in which even the set seems overstated.
Thomas F. Donahue's scenery looks as if it is made of barnsiding -- a material far too crude for the home of the genteel Kellers, and one which, in its most negative connotation, suggests that disabled Helen is an animal. This is especially regrettable since Donahue's overall design -- with doors and windows that almost seem to float in space -- has an abstract quality that reinforces the ineffable nature of learning.
In the best possible sense, theater and education are not unrelated. Gibson acknowledged this when he wrote the original version of "The Miracle Worker" for television 35 years ago. Since then, the play has become somewhat of a war horse. But even in this partially flawed production, its power to move an audience remains strong.
'The Miracle Worker'
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through Sept. 6.
Where: Olney Theatre, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108), Olney.
Call: (301) 924-3400.