Review - Paper Mill's The Miracle Worker: Children Will Listen

William Gibson's The Miracle Worker is one of those rare serious American dramas you can call a real crowd-pleaser, as much as Oklahoma!, Hello, Dolly! or any other musical with an exclamation point at the end of its title. Death of A Salesman? Long Day's Journey Into Night? Great dramas for sure, but not exactly crowd-pleasers. Heck, we already know there's a happy ending. It's called The Miracle Worker, for goodness sake.

And though you should always be suspect of the reactions of opening night audiences, there was strong, enthused applause following nearly every scene at Sunday's performance of The Paper Mill's new production and I suspect that will be happening frequently during the run. I wouldn't exactly call director Susan Fenichell's mounting miraculous, but it's good, basic, meat-and-potatoes theatre.

You know the story, right? The Kellers of 1880's Alabama have a young daughter, Helen, who became deaf and blind as a baby. They write for assistance to a Boston institute that has been doing good work with blind children and are sent the headstrong and inexperienced Annie Sullivan, a visually impaired woman who is out to make a go at earning her own living for the first time.

Sullivan has two major obstacles to overcome in her attempt to teach Helen how to make intellectual connections between the words she's taught to spell with her hands and the concept that they mean something. Out of pity, the Kellers have pretty much spoiled the child and let her have run of the house, giving her sweets to calm her tantrums and allowing her to eat with her hands by picking off of everyone else's plate. Though the teacher recognizes an independent spirit in Helen that she wouldn't want to break, she also shows no tolerance for bad manners. But when she tries to correct the child's behavior, the family, especially her father, finds her practice of tough love inappropriate and potentially destructive.

Annika Boras makes a brash and heroic Annie Sullivan, using an Irish brogue and a no-nonsense attitude that just barely covers her bouts with frustration and fear of failure. 11-year-old Meredith Lipson, who alternates performances with Lily Maketansky, is very believable as the deaf/blind child, showing her to be an intelligent girl with a great potential for learning. Their scenes together are loaded with fierce energy and realistic humor, especially in the famous choreographEd Battle in the dining room when Helen will have no part of Sullivan's attempt to teach her how to use a fork.

There is good work from the supporting players, including John Hickok as Helen's father, a former Confederate Army Captain who is shocked by the unseemly attitude of this Bostonian woman, Emily Dorsch as the sensitive mother trying to understand Sullivan's methods and Will Fowler as Helen's smart-aleck half-brother.

David Zinn's set, the Keller home's back exterior with smaller interiors rolling in and out, nicely hints at the family's traditional elegance while his costumes help contrast the northern teacher with the southern society that surrounds her.

Parents, go ahead and take your tweens to this one. They may actually have something to say after the performance besides, "Can I have a t-shirt?"

An interesting aside: I found this note printed in the acting edition of The Miracle Worker, published in 1960:

Following instructions from the author, this play may be released only to amateur groups at which the audience is non-segregated.

They sure had a heck of a decade ahead of 'em.

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