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REVIEW: Blind, Deaf, Unrestrained inThe Miracle Worker (Yellow Tree Theatre)

Kiara Jackson and Jane Froiland in Yellow Tree Theatre’s The Miracle Worker. Photo by Justin Cox Photography.

Helen Keller was blind and deaf from an early age but went on to become an accomplished and world-famous equal rights activist, speaker, and author.  Playwright William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker dramatizes the moment when, as a child, Helen was able to break through her bodily imposed isolation and first learned to communicate.  Gibson’s play began as a teleplay in the 1950s, became a Tony Award-winning Broadway play a few years later, and became a 1962 movie that won Academy Awards for actresses Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.  Under the direction of Patrick Coyle, Yellow Tree has launched an ambitious and powerful production of Gibson’s dramatic play.

Helen (Catie Blair) was born in Alabama about twenty years after the Civil War.  Her family was proud of their relationship to the Confederacy General Robert E. Lee, and her father (Casey E. Lewis) served as an officer for the South during the war.  Before Helen could learn to speak, she was left blind and deaf from a bout of Scarlet Fever.  Her parents took her to medical experts with no success.  As Helen became older, she started to have increased and sometimes violent tantrums.  Desperate to avoid sending their daughter to an asylum (deplorable places full of rats in those days), Helen’s mother (Jane Froiland) pled with her husband to have a recommended teacher come and work with Helen.

Catie Bair (as Helen Keller) and Kiara Jackson (as Annie Sullivan) in YellowTree Theatre’s production of Miracle Worker. Photo by Justin Cox Photography.

The play focuses on when the teacher Annie Sullivan (Kiara Jackson) arrives with her own tragic history.  Sullivan is determined to find a way to communicate with Helen.  Their relationship has its ups and downs and family members interfere.  But the bond between Helen and Anne grows, leading to a breakthrough.  Jackson, as Sullivan, does an outstanding job of carrying most of the weight and dialog of the play.  She succeeds in showing Sullivan as both insecure about being able to make a living and fiercely determined to help Anne.  Catie Blair, as the young Helen, does well in a difficult role with almost no dialog and multiple tantrums.  Despite the limitations of the role, Blair creates an onstage bond with Jackson, making her transformation from wild child to an eager student believable .

Froiland, as Helen’s mother, and Lewis, as her father, effectively convey the mixed feelings of parents who love their child but are fearful they cannot cope with the disruption her disability creates.  Lukas Levin, as the Keller’s older son James, excels with his remarkable performance showing both his resentment that most of his parents’ attention is directed to his disabled sister and, yet, he serves as her champion in the end.

Samantha Fromm Haddow’s detailed costumes contribute to the sense of the post-Civil War world that Helen grew up in.  Designer Scenic designer Arina Slobodianik creation of the open, multi-level wooden structure of a 19th century home is of mixed effectiveness.  It succeeds in setting the initial atmosphere, but leaves little room for Corey Mills’ choreography of the violent brawls between Sullivan and Helen.  Consequently, the choreography fails to show the intensity of the physical struggle between teacher and student that is set forth in Keller’s autobiography and demonstrated so well in the 1962 movie.

Given what Helen Keller accomplished in her life, it is perplexing why the State of Texas has excluded her life from their school’s history curriculum.  Yellow Tree’s production not only keeps Keller’s inspirational story alive, it also strikes a personal chord with any person who has a family member with a severe disability.

The Miracle Worker plays at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, MN through October 15, 2018.

Bev Wolfe