Miracle or triumph of the human spirit, call it what you will. In any case, the new Mammoth Lakes Repertory Theatre presentation of William Gibson’s successful Broadway play, “The Miracle Worker,” delivers plenty to celebrate. Following a string of successful musicals and comedies, the drama tells the true story of Helen Keller, an Alabama girl struck blind and deaf as a baby after suffering an elevated fever. Enter Annie Sullivan, a partially blind woman, assigned the arduous task of teaching Helen how to escape her world of silence.
Directed by Juliana Olinka and produced by Artistic Director, Shira Dubrovner, the play opened Feb. 7 at the Edison Theatre and runs for the next two weekends. Olinka had her first experience with the play in high school, when she played the role of Annie Sullivan, and said that as an adult she’s found a new appreciation for Gibson’s material.
With Gibson’s strong material, you need a cast that’s up to it … and Olinka struck gold. “Miracle Worker” hinges on the two lead roles, after all. As Annie Sullivan, Olinka couldn’t have done better than Madeline Roy, a graduate of Mammoth High School and recent graduate of Chapman University. It’s her grasp of Sullivan’s uncertain, yet stalwart manner that’s winning, channeling her Celtic fortitude to teach Helen on her own terms. And Roy’s absolutely convincing, especially during the play’s emotional final scene.
If you have a strong Sullivan, you need an equally adept Helen Keller. And the study and work done by Melanie Moyer, a 7th grader at Mammoth Middle School, really paid off. Her Helen is simply flawless. With no lines, she has to convey the blind and deaf Helen through action and expression, not an easy feat, but Moyer never breaks character and is strong start to finish.
Jennifer Collins, who recently appeared in “A Christmas Carol: A Traveling Travesty in Two Tumultuous Acts,” is perfect as Helen’s mother Kate Keller. Craig Sterling who portrayed the sheriff in the recent SCT Murder Mystery deftly delivers Helen’s somewhat cynical half-brother James. And Cecilia Orrick and her daughter Tina are breaths of fresh air as the Keller’s housekeeper, Viney, and her daughter, Prissy.
Perhaps the surprise of the show could well have been the casting of Greg Young as Helen’s father, Captain Keller. Young took over for another actor who had to bow out late into rehearsals, and went from zero to curtain ready in just two weeks, curiously turning out what could be his best role yet in Eastern Sierra theatre.
Also rounding out the cast are stage veterans Eva Poole-Gilson, a plum as Aunt Ev, and Kevin Worden, who has two small, but important parts as the Doctor and Mr. Anagnos, who sends Sullivan off on her first real teaching assignment: Helen.
Torrey Patrie, Maya Weber, Cassidy Moyer (Melanie’s sister) and Jamie Peabody acquit themselves just fine as blind girls Alice, Beatrice, Mary and Sarah, respectively. Even Worden’s dog, Boo, gets in on the act as the Keller’s pooch, Belle.
“The Artistic Council, which includes Jo Bacon, Noelle Deinken, Juliana Olinka and new member Mary Walker, and I felt it was important to choose a well-rounded season that was within the guidelines of our new vision statement: produce live theatre that mirrors human nature with the intent to be insightful and enlighten the future by creating a theatre experience that not only engages but also educates, inspires, entertains, and provokes thoughts,” Dubrovner said. “This play not only fulfilled that mission, but also is an opportunity for the entire family to come and have a theatre experience that will hopefully create a life-long impact on our youth.
Dubrovner said the Artistic Council is preparing a study guide for local teachers that can be used to support the history and themes of Gibson’s work.
Olinka echoed Dubrovner’s thoughts. “There are moments in each of our lives that greatly influence our choices in life,” she noted. “Appearing as Annie Sullivan in my high school’s award-winning production of ‘Miracle Worker’ was one such moment. Because of that experience I chose Theatre and Acting as my career. The story of Helen Keller and all she accomplished throughout her life, and the opportunity to retell a story, which then and now has been important to me.”
That import is evident in Olinka’s direction, skillfully working with the ensemble where needed, but razor sharp when it comes to scenes focusing on Roy and Moyer’s Annie-Helen relationship.
Costumes (Pam Bartley and Cathy Foye) and sets (Olinka, and Tim Casey, Bill McChesney and Jeff Smith) are top drawer, and I liked the “black box” approach, using black backdrops, letting the costumes and set pieces provide the color, and keeping the sets open and fluid, which was used to great effect in a Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”
“The Miracle Worker” plays Thursdays through Saturdays, through February 24 at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. at the Edison Theatre, adjacent to Cerro Coso Community College. Tix: $20 Adults, $18 Seniors and students, $10 youth under age 16) available at www.Edisontheatre.org. Info/reservations: 760.934.6592.
(Photo: Bluebird Imaging)