Review: The Miracle Worker

Great chemistry, superb acting and a beautiful set make Syracuse Stage's production of the "Miracle Worker" a must-see.

The first thing you’ll notice about Syracuse Stage’s production of the Miracle Worker is the exceedingly gorgeous set. A brightly painted backdrop brings Spring into full bloom behind an impressive two-story southern plantation, where light, greenery and rich detail create Helen Keller’s home and demonstrate in striking tragedy the vivid world that she could not see.

Syracuse Stage presented a superb production of "The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson, Sunday night. The show, which runs through April 23, tells the story of Helen Keller’s journey from unruly deaf, mute child, to enlightenment with the unrelenting and spirited efforts of her young teacher Annie Sullivan.

The play takes place in Alabama 1877 and follows the trials of raising a deaf, mute child through to the amazing breakthrough 6-year-old Helen had that year.
“She is like a little safe, locked, that no one can open,” Annie’s teacher tells her at the play’s opening. “Perhaps there is a treasure inside.”

Anna O’Donoghue played Annie Sullivan with a beautiful combination of tough love and tenderness. She strikes a balance between resilience and fragility, confidently pushing Helen forward while grappling with her own demons—a dark and tragic childhood spent in an insane asylum.

Jacqueline Baum, 11, made her theatrical debut with the role of Helen. (A fact almost as astounding as the story of the play). Baum is phenomenal as Helen. She finds the depth to the character. Beyond just feeling her way around stage and flailing in fits of tantrum, Baum also perfectly conveys the pained, weight of wanting something—to communicate—so badly. She twists her face into a heartbreaking plead for knowledge as she signs to her teacher. In a talkback after the show Baum described her technique for portraying Helen as “entering into her own world and letting everything and everyone encounter her.”

Baum and O’Donoghue have a wonderful chemistry on stage, which peaks in the classic dining room scene in which Annie tries to teach Helen table manners. Director Paul Barnes masterfully choreographs the fifteen-minute battle of will, as scrambled eggs, water and spoons go flying.
Strong performances from the family members included the sweet, caring Kate Keller (Regan Thompson) and her domineering husband, Captain Keller (James Lloyd Reynolds). James Keller (Eric Gilde) provided some comic relief while also delivering a layered performance of the insecure and frustrated son.

“The Miracle Worker” premiered on Broadway in 1960 and starred Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller. It won five Tony awards, including best play and was made into a film version with the same performers as principals in 1962. The film won two Oscars for best actress and best supporting actress.

The play is long, 2 hours and 50 minutes with two intermissions, but the cast’s energy keeps it moving.

And the sure sign of a performance well done is not the decibel of clapping at the end but the stillness in the show’s final moment. When Annie finally unlocks the key to Helen’s understanding at the water pump, you couldn’t hear a pin drop in the theatre, save, of course, the chorus of sniffling. 

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