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BWW Reviews: Logan's Fresh, Inventive Take On An American Classic Elevates THE MIRACLE WORKER

When Patty Duke played the role of Helen Keller in the Broadway premiere of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, she was ten years old, and when Madeleine Hall took the stage of the Franklin Theatre on Thursday night in the opening of Studio Tenn's exquisitely crafted revival of the modern American theater classic, she too was ten years old. And it should be noted that as portentous as Duke's debut came to be known, theater lovers still to come may very well consider Madeleine Hall's beautifully crafted performance just as revelatory and just as noteworthy.

Finding herself in a cast filled with exceptional stage talents, Hall has every right to be intimidated by the years of experience surrounding her, but if you were on hand for her opening night curtain call, you would find yourself thoroughly convinced that young Madeleine Hall may have intimidated her older, more experienced comrades. When she took her bow, a bright smile lighting her lovely face, she did so with grace and dignity, then she moved aside slightly and with a small flourish extended her arm to acknowledge her co-star-the luminous Emily Landham who plays Anne Sullivan in the near-perfect production-and to make way for her laudatory bow, which earned effusive praise from the audience. As Landham took that bow, Madeleine Hall beamed, displaying pride and admiration of Landham's performance. That, my good people, is how you know a star when you see her.

It was a brief, but definitely shining, moment at the end of a performance that left its audience breathless with the sheer artistry and the lovingly crafted stage effort brought forth from the brilliantly creative mind of the show's director, Matt Logan, who has managed to make a show sometimes considered over-sentimental and hackneyed into something fresh and inspiring and so completely moving. Logan's confidence in staging Contemporary Stage classics (last season's The Glass Menagerie remains seared in my mind's eye) represents his true love of theater and his inventive eye for making the familiar seem somehow new and heretofore unseen.

It's a remarkable gift and Nashville area audiences are lucky to have him leading Studio Tenn's efforts, with the company already considered among the exemplary creative lights in a city fairly teeming with artistic achievement. That Logan so ably directs his productions is impressive enough, but that he designs and crafts the costumes and scenery for his shows-well, it's a staggering amount of work, made even more impressive by how extraordinary his visual aesthetic is for each of the shows he takes on.

Studio Tenn's version of The Miracle Worker is presented in an almost cinematic manner, the first scene lit by footlights which cast an amber glow upon the initial scene in which the Kellers learn of their beloved daughter's plight (kudos to Stephen Moss for his exceedingly evocative and artful lighting design), with each scene dovetailing nicely into another via the clever set design provided by Logan. The blinding white light that billows out from an open doorway-the characters' features obliterated by the light behind them-creates a sense of timelessness and wonder that permeates the proceedings and which completely rivets your attention to what is about to happen onstage. It's stunningly effective and enormously captivating.

That approach helps to elevate the segments of The Miracle Worker that usually prove most problematic; specifically, those scenes in which Anne Sullivan is haunted by the voice of her baby brother Jimmy, whose untimely death continues to torment her and to cause her to lose confidence in herself. Logan effectively implements his own vision, coupled with the superb sound design by Danny Northup, to give these scenes greater emphasis and, thereby, making them all the more compelling and, somehow, less melodramatic and jarring.

The play's best-known scene-in which Helen finally displays an understanding of the lessons taught by Sullivan in her efforts to give her young charge a means of communication-at the water pump at Ivy Green (the Kellers' home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, just over the state line from us in Tennessee) is given its due, although the way the scene is staged makes it hard to see from many of the theater's seats, thus undermining the dramatic consequences of that seminal scene.

Logan's much-deserved reputation as a director is such that he can bring together the very best of the region's actors to bring his shows to life and in The Miracle Worker, he shows just how deftly he casts each role, in the process creating a pitch-perfect ensemble.

Hall and Landham's performances are richly hued and finely nuanced, obliterating any preconceived notions you might have of their characters and, instead, each young woman creates a portrayal that grabs your heart and refuses to let go. Mostly silent throughout the two-plus hours of drama enacted on that stage, Hall utilizes everything in her arsenal to bring six-year-old Helen Keller so vividly to life in front of you. Her performance is expressive and heartbreakingly genuine: there is nary a false note to be seen in her affecting portrayal.

Landham, cast as Keller's beloved "teacher," matches her younger co-star in every way, delivering an almost-perfect reading of the character while investing in Anne the necessary grit and determination, mitigated with depths of love and support, in order to become the revered Miss Sullivan. Landham, in role after role, shows a lovely sense of peace and grace throughout her every performance, telegraphing her feelings with a subtlety that allows the true range of her work to come upon you naturally and honestly.

The pairing of Hall and Landham is of paramount importance, of course, when considering the overwhelming success of this production, but it is Logan's tremendous attention to detail that is most satisfying, particularly in his choices for the actors assaying the supporting roles in Gibson's play (which, frankly, could be so completely overwrought in lesser hands).

Has Jeremy Childs ever been better than he is as Captain Keller, Helen's frustrated, stern buT Loving father? I don't think so: His Captain Keller has the bearing of a Confederate veteran, the sense of entitlement suited for a pillar of his town, the lord of his estate. His interaction with Ellie Sykes as his second wife Kate, Patrick Waller as his son from his first marriage and, perhaps more importantly, with Landham and Hall is thoroughly believable and well-modulated.

Sykes, who was so heartrendingly effective in last seasons The Glass Menagerie, brings maternal affection and studied elegance to the role of Kate, displaying flashes of spirit and fire in the process of playing a tortured and loving mother. As she reveals her own frustrations with raising her deaf, mute and blind child, she reveals layer upon layer of emotion that other actresses would leave untapped.

Waller, as versatile an actor as you could ever hope to see, plays James Keller with the right blend of brotherly sensitivity and chauvinistic oafishness, walking a fine line and maintain his balance in doing so. Denice Hicks, looking beautiful in Logan's Victorian finery as spinster Aunt Ev, radiates familial pride while stridently conforming to the societal roles assigned to women like her.

David Compton shows off his estimable talents in two roles that particularly showcase his range as an actor, playing infant Helen's blustery Tuscumbia doctor with a flash and a flourish and then morphing into Anne Sullivan's teacher Mr. Anagnos with aplomb. Jennifer Whitcomb-Oliva plays Viney, the Keller family retainer and cook, with wit and good grace. Completing the cast is eight-year-old Amelie Webb as Viney's daughter Martha, with her brother Charlie Webb providing the voice of Anne Sullivan's dead baby brother.

The Miracle Worker. By William Gibson. Directed by Matt Logan. Presented by Studio Tenn, at The Franklin Theatre. Through March 4. For details, go to www.StudioTenn.com.


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Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 35 years. In 1989, Ellis and his partner l... (read more about this author)


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