Reviewed by Dr. Tiffany Raymond, PhD and Theron Raymond (5th grader)
Prime Stage Theatre Co. opens its 27th season with The Miracle Worker, written by William Gibson and directed by Wayne Brinda. Gibson’s play premiered on Broadway in 1959. The Miracle Worker explores the real-life story of Annie Sullivan’s arrival to the Keller home where the 20-year-old takes charge of young Helen’s education. Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880, but before the age of two, illness left her both blind and deaf.
While Sullivan and Keller’s names are now inextricably linked, this play shows that was not always the case – or even a foregone conclusion. In fact, my 11-year-old son and co-reviewer aptly described the first half as “more wrestling match than play.” The undisciplined, headstrong Keller throws tantrums and has been allowed to run rampant. In Sullivan, she encounters a will stronger than her own for the first time.
Fifth grader Kendall Knotts is riveting as young Helen. She’s comfortable making it uncomfortable to watch her. She lashes out at her environment and the people in it, hitting and battling. However, she also demonstrates both intelligence and deviousness when she locks newcomer Annie in her room and hides the key in her mouth.
Knotts was already familiar with American Sign Language as she learned and performed in ASL for another production. Her familiarity with the deaf community elevates her performance. Under Wayne Brinda’s stellar direction, Knotts never focuses her vision on the objects or people in front of her, making her blindness convincing.
Just as Keller finds her real-life match in Sullivan, Knotts finds her match in Holland Adele Taylor as Annie. The pairing is dynamic. Sullivan writes in her diary that her biggest problem with Helen will be “how to discipline her without breaking her spirit,” and Brinda makes that struggle palpable.
When Sullivan tries to get Helen to sit at the table and use a spoon to eat, Knotts hurls a series of spoons around the room. Knotts crawls under the table and tries to escape, and Taylor physically lifts her, repeatedly returning the kicking child to the table. Thus, the wrestling match. Both roles are physically demanding. Brinda keeps the focus on their struggle, providing a front-row seat to Helen’s transformation under Sullivan from feral child to civilized girl. Brinda also directs Taylor to exaggerate her expressions and head motions as she repeatedly holds Helen’s hands to her face as she nods yes or shakes no to create the groundwork for meaning.
Helen’s evolution is mirrored in Ashlynn Swauger’s costume design. When we first meet Helen, her pinafore and dress are always muddy and stained. Her metamorphosis is signified in her transition to unstained white.
Stacia Palieri captures the desperation of a mother as Kate Keller. Her turning point is when Sullivan gets Helen to keep a napkin on her lap. Palieri softly repeats that in wonder, and it’s a quintessential gentile Southern manifestation of hope and pride. Kate is an advocate for her daughter but also knows how to placate her husband (Rick Dutrow).
At one point, he rails against Sullivan as a “half-blind, inexperienced Yankee.” Dutrow captures a man caught between the ages. He’s a former Confederate captain but also resists the era’s default of relegating his blind, deaf daughter to an asylum. Dialect coach Lisa Bansavage heightens the play’s tensions by contrasting the deep southern accent of the Kellers with Sullivan’s Bostonian origins as another north/south battle plays out.
Pittsburgh loves a Pittsburgh connection. It turns out there’s one with Helen Keller. In 1893, Keller and Sullivan came to Pittsburgh where Keller attended William Wade House and Finishing School in Oakmont. Keller and Wade remained close until his passing, and Keller and Sullivan were charter members of the Oakmont Women’s Club. In fact, Keller learned to horseback ride on Wade’s 30-acre estate.
– TR, Ph.D. and TR
“The Miracle Worker” runs from November 3 to November 12 at the New Hazlett Theatre, 6 Allegheny Square East Pittsburgh, PA 15212. The run includes a sensory-inclusive performance as well as a signed and live captioned performance. For more information, click here.