I attended the preview performance of “The Miracle Worker” at Lakewood Playhouse, the final technical dress rehearsal and the cast’s first opportunity to perform in front of a live audience. As managing artistic director John Munn explained in his curtain speech, things are expected to go wrong.
But in this case, the performance was practically flawless.
“The Miracle Worker” is the story of the developing relationship between a young Helen Keller (Liberty Evans-Agnew) and her teacher, Annie Sullivan (Deya Ozburn). The title comes from Mark Twain, who called Annie a miracle worker. It also is alluded to in the beginning of the play when Annie’s teacher, Anagnos (Dennis Worrell), sends Annie off to Alabama to work as Helen Keller’s governess, saying “No one expects you to work miracles, even for $25 a month.”
Unable to see, hear or speak, Helen expresses her frustration by violently acting out, throwing the Keller household into a constant state of turmoil. When Annie arrives there, she quickly realizes that she has to somehow teach Helen how to understand and sign words, and perhaps more urgently, figure out some way to discipline her. Helen is essentially feral.
James Venturini’s set design is attractive and functional, with separate rooms in the Keller house in the back corners of the in-the-round stage, and a large central area that doubles as dining room, yard, and Annie’s school for the blind. The only drawback to the set is that audience members on two sides have to turn their heads to see certain scenes.
Rachel Wilkie’s period costumes are outstanding, Daniel Cole’s lighting design works beautifully, Pug Bujeaud’s direction is superb, and the acting is of the highest caliber.
Gretchen Boyt as Helen’s mother and James A. Gilletti as her father are totally believable. Boyt’s acting is relatively subdued for such a highly emotional character. The audience can see and feel her sometimes tortured changes of thought and feeling conveyed through posture and facial expression as she struggles against her natural inclination to indulge Helen’s every whim. This true particularly in her background acting when others are speaking.
Gilletti also convincingly portrays inner struggles as his autocratic nature butts heads with his softness of heart. His Southern accent is spot-on in conveying both place and class.
Ozburn’s Annie and Evans-Agnew’s Helen are mesmerizing. Ozburn is a seasoned pro whose performances I have been praising for years (most recently in “The Children’s Hour” at Lakewood Playhouse) and she nails it as Annie. The 13-year-old Evans-Agnew is a newcomer to the stage; her only other stage appearance was as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Tacoma Little Theatre.
If they handed out Tony Awards for community theater, it would be hard to decide which of these two deserved it most. The intensity and the authenticity of their physically demanding performances are mind-boggling. I can’t imaging watching their performances without aching for them and celebrating their final triumph.