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The Miracle Worker graces South’s stage

By Denebola
Published: October 2008

By Mark Galinovsky

South Stage’s recent production of The Miracle Worker pushes the limit of high school theatre to new heights by creating an image that both inspires and provokes the audience. Directed by Nancy Curran Willis, The Miracle Worker simultaneously manifests beauty and hope.

The play, by William Gibson, tells the story of Helen Keller, played by sophomore Madeline Schulman, a deaf, blind, and mute child, whose parents, Captain and Kate Keller, played by seniors David Broyles and Anya Whelan-Smith, respectively, spend years trying to find a way to help Helen cope with her condition.

They enlist the help of Annie Sullivan, played by senior Madeline Burrows, an ambitious and stubborn woman, to help Helen learn how to behave and communicate. Through tiresome, difficult labor, Annie finally teaches Helen language and the sanctity of communication.

The physical choreography stands out the most in this production. As Helen does not speak at all until the very end of the play, much of the time spent between Annie and Helen consists of learning sign language and fighting over control. In a particularly memorable scene, Annie and Helen navigate under and over the dinner table, knocking over chairs and running around the room, culminating in a full out food fight.

In terms of the acting itself, each cast member effectively and expertly conveys his or her incredibly serious and complex character to the audience. Schulman, who had perhaps the hardest job of all, succeeds in conveying all the physical and emotional outbursts of Helen, without overacting.

Although she keeps her eyes open, there is never any question as to the calculation of her actions; she runs confidently into chairs and drawers without any reservation. None of her choices seem awkward or poorly planned.

Whelan-Smith juggles Kate Keller’s love for her child and her reluctance to place trust in Annie, who requests complete control of Helen for two weeks. In her most convincing performance to date, Whelan-Smith gains complete sympathy and support from the audience.

Burrows delves deeply into her character throughout the play. Her demonic visions of her deceased brother Jimmie, junior Ariel Shvartsman, interrupt her determination to help Helen. The visions not only serve to exemplify Burrows’s acting abilities, but also the fantastic tech and blocking of the crew.

These multilayered scenes consist of eerie sounds, hellish red lights, echoing microphones, overlapping taunts from evil spirits, and the pitifully childish voice of Jimmie constantly reminding Annie that they’ll “be together, forever and ever and ever.

There is a noticeable change in Annie throughout the play, going from a naïve girl embarking on a new journey, to a determined and hard-working woman, sacrificing her personal life for a girl with little hope.

Willis’ attention to detail does not go unnoticed. All of the characters are integral and essential to setting the environment of the show. Viney, senior Tess Boris-Shacter, shows pure affection for Helen and provides much needed comic relief to the story. Aunt Ev, senior Madeline Sharton, pressures Captain Keller to help Helen in a way only a sister can. Martha, junior Hannah Furgang, and Percy, senior Roxy Striar, the playing children, show Helen’s lack of social skills by contrasting her sharply with other children. The caring but grave warnings of Anagnos, senior Max Pava, continuously haunt Annie.

While these characters could be easily pushed aside, Willis actually makes each of them just as complex as the main characters and doesn’t let any of them fall to the wayside.

“The Miracle Worker taught me why I do theatre, and why I’m involved in theatre.  [The fact] that we can bring a story like this to life and move people is truly amazing. I was crying at the end of the show, even though I’ve seen it a million times, assistant director, senior Alex Caron, said.

The Miracle Worker may not be as technically ambitious as last year’s production of Peter Pan, but it contains many intimate and intensely emotional scenes that far surpass previous South Stage productions.

Impressively succeeding to create a stirring and powerful performance out of an obviously difficult and multilayered play, South Stage once again proves that while the budget may be cut, the performance bar continues be raised.

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