Doors, keys make a strong `Miracle'

Review: All signs point to a bright new vision by director Nick Olcott for `The Miracle Worker' at Arena Stage.

March 22, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The first things you notice about Arena Stage's production of "The Miracle Worker" are six doors suspended near the ceiling. The doors serve no physical purpose, yet along with keys, they are a recurring metaphor in director Nick Olcott's imaginatively insightful production of William Gibson's modern classic.

"The Miracle Worker" tells the story of 6-year-old blind, deaf Helen Keller and the endlessly patient, persevering teacher, Annie Sullivan, who helped her discover language.

A drama about individuality, connections, longing and self-expression, it began as a television play, the precursor of the modern docudrama.

But Olcott's inventive direction imbues it with an impressive new level of theatricality.

This production begins with a short added scene in which Annie stands, spotlighted, in the center of the in-the-round stage, surrounded by four of the eight "witnesses" Olcott has added to the dramatis personae. Each of these four offers her a key (a reference, perhaps, to a comment in the play by Annie's own teacher, who describes Helen as "a little safe, locked, that no one can open").

Receiving keys from these particular characters is especially significant since the witnesses are also sign interpreters. A mixed group of deaf and hearing actors, they spend most of the play perched in openings at the edges of the stage.

Fluent signers, they have already found the key to one of the doors separating a segment of the disabled from mainstream society.

As the play progresses, the witnesses occasionally take minor roles, mostly relating to Annie's own troubled roots, first in an asylum and later at Boston's Perkins Institute for the Blind and Deaf. Even for those of us who are signing impaired, their signing has the finely choreographed feel of interpretive dance.

Written in 1957, Gibson's play pre-dates the frenzy for political correctness, but it would be difficult to imagine a more overt vehicle today.

Olcott not only casts some hearing impaired actors -- including Shira Grabelsky, who plays Helen -- but also casts regardless of race.

Helen's mother (Samarra Mbenga) is black.

Her half-brother (John Kim) is Asian.

In this case, the use of colorblind casting is symbolically appropriate. After all, Helen is blind. She loves her family with total disregard for skin color.

That love is warmly reciprocated by her parents, particularly Mbenga as Helen's adoring, indulgent mother. And Helen is not the easiest child to love. Diminutive Grabelsky, a freshman at George Washington University, plays Helen as a one-person destructive dynamo. Yet in her wild behavior, the actress lets you sense Helen's deep frustration.

Once blind herself, Annie, portrayed with tough determination and a touch of an Irish brogue by Kelly C. McAndrew, senses this frustration immediately. She is every bit as stubborn as Helen -- and then some. Her tutelage takes the form of a battle of wills, which she does not intend to lose. Giving up, she says at one point, is her idea of the original sin.

Four decades after its debut, "The Miracle Worker" is such a familiar chestnut, audiences tend to take its title for granted. Casting new light on this old play is a small miracle in itself, however, and that's what director Olcott has achieved at Arena Stage.

`Miracle Worker'

Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., S.W., Washington

When: 7: 30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Sundays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; selected matinees 2: 30 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, noon Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Through April 30

Tickets: $27-$45

Call: 202-488-3300

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