Surely a child abandoned in the forest and raised by wolves would not grow up to be as wild and uncontrollable as the young Helen Keller. Trapped inside a body that could neither see nor hear the world around her, and over-indulged by her helpless and bewildered parents, Helen vented her anger and frustration in tantrums and random physical attacks.
The story of Helen Keller’s childhood, and her subsequent evolution under the resolute tutelage of the 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, is an American classic, given voice by playwright William Gibson in his 1957 television play “The Miracle Worker” and its Broadway production two years later. Since then, “The Miracle Worker” has become a perennial favorite, performed often in theaters around the country. But, I would venture to guess, nowhere better than in the current production at the Edgemar Center for the Arts in Santa Monica.
Carlie Nettles as Helen and Erin Christine Shaver as Annie Sullivan are intense and riveting, volatile, manic, and emotionally draining to watch. In ferocious battles of the will, they pummel each other: the mute Helen scratching and clawing, the indomitable Annie pinning her to the ground and never letting go. In a protracted breakfast scene, Helen wanders around the table grabbing handfuls of scrambled eggs from the plates of her permissive family members. The horrified Annie then launches into a wrestling match as she attempts to confine the writhing and kicking Helen in her seat and compel her to eat from a plate set in front of her. As the rebellious Helen repeatedly tosses the food to the floor, Annie continues to refill the plate. The scene, overlong and violent, is so truthful and so climactic as to leave the transfixed audience in a complete state of exhaustion.
Joel Daavid, who directed and designed this version of the play, has peopled it with children from Annie Sullivan’s bleak past: sad, blind orphans who appear as memory figures and move through their scenes with balletic grace.
As Helen’s genteel parents, noble figures in the late Confederacy, Stuart W. Howard plays her father, a captain in that war, and Julie Austin Felder plays her mother, Kate, a cousin of Robert E. Lee and daughter of a Confederate general. Kate hobbles Helen with tenderness fraught with guilt, while “The Captain,” who admits to not loving this disabled daughter, treats her with detachment and lack of empathy. Which, however, doesn’t explain his ambivalent relationship with his older son from a previous marriage. This son, James (Christopher Irving) is a sardonic, unpleasant young man who longs for his father’s respect but, for some inexplicable reason, garners only his contempt. This father-son relationship is ill-defined and unresolved, and is a confusing and erratic sideline to the central action of the play.
In addition to this rather unnecessary character, and an unnecessary aunt, played with Southern belle elegance by Marbry Steward, there is also the matter of redundancy. While Nettles and Shaver are consistently excellent, there are just a few too many battle scenes between them, and too many repetitions of Nettles stumbling around, behaving maliciously, and probing people’s faces and bodies. All this makes for a nearly three-hour play which should have been judiciously cut by at least half an hour.
These are minor cavils, however, to a play that is innovatively presented, beautifully performed, and carried out on a set that is cleverly designed and continually transforming by means of rotating scenery and diverse lighting effects.
Even if you saw the film version which won Academy Awards for both Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft in 1962, that was a long time ago. So it’s not too soon to see this vivid and emotionally satisfying revival.
“The Miracle Worker” will continue at the Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through June 28. Call (310) 392-7327 for reservations.
Cynthia Citron can be heard reading her theater reviews on iTunes at feed://www.airsla.org/broadcasts/theater_reviewsrss.xml