There are two scenes in William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” that, despite their familiarity and inevitability, make watching this 52-year-old drama an unforgettable, visceral live experience: the first for its brutal physicality; the second for its naked bliss.
The first is the harrowing showdown between the formerly blind teacher and the spoiled wild child she’s been charged with breaking out of her human prison in 1887 Alabama. Determined to get her deaf, blind and mute pupil to simply eat with a spoon, Sullivan and her stubborn nemesis beat the holy heck out of each other in a fight of the century that’s Grant vs. Lee, Ali vs. Frazier, Comaneci vs. Korbut — all in one.
The second you see coming. You already know Sullivan eventually breaks down the wall that separates Keller from connecting words with meaning, opening the floodgates to real communication. Regardless, the climactic moment of the Denver Center Theatre Company’s new staging elicits a symphony of real, joyful sniffles.
Both feature National Theatre Conservatory student Kate Hurster as Annie Sullivan and 12-yearold Daria LeGrand as Helen Keller in staggering demonstrations of precision wildness.
Gibson’s seminal play is much more than a bio. It’s a metaphor for North-South antebellum hostility. It’s about the power of language as a gateway to a meaningful life. It’s about the timeless conflict between lost teens and wits’-end parents who lack the tools to help their own kids.
Gibson’s words, “The world isn’t an easy place to be anymore,” could have been written yesterday.
Director Art Manke’s staging is a triumph of casting, immediacy and down-and-dirty execution. Hurster and LeGrand are a revelation; their bruising ballet induced deserved opening-night gasps. It hurts to watch, and yet you can’t look away.
Talk about setting boundaries. There hasn’t been this much hair-pulling, wrestling and bloodletting since John Quincy Adams called Andrew Jackson’s wife and mother prostitutes.
People will be talking for years about young LeGrand for her feral depiction of Keller that is so ferocious and free of mannerism, it’s hard to imagine how she’ll match herself eight times a week. Talk about a miracle worker: She’s scared, angry and in the dark — like a lot of kids. And she’s an evil little devil who rules her roost. Sullivan’s job includes restoring the balance of power in this house.
Manke and his daring creative team take some stylized design gambles, to varying degrees of success. The floor of Tom Buderwitz’s sprawling set, which takes out almost an entire section of seats from the round Space Theatre, is covered in handwritten words — excerpts from letters Sullivan actually wrote while tutoring Keller.
It’s an overwhelming but effective visual touch, complementing the idea that language is to the mind what light is to the eye. Among these thousands of words at our disposal, Keller needs only connect with the meaning of one to unlock the world.
Unfortunately, there are occasional sightline problems — and it’s curious that while the kitchen is the nerve center of this story, it’s not at the center of this stage.
The sound design is more problematic. Frequently, it’s piping in heavy-handed echoes of Sullivan’s dead brother, who never got out of the asylum the two festered in as children. But just knowing the horrid circumstances of their youth is plenty. Especially given that the sound also swings wildly toward the saccharine.
There are many fine support performances, notably Rachel Fowler as Helen’s conflicted, doe-eyed mother; Leigh Miller as the callous half-brother learning to stand up for himself, and especially longtime company favorite John Hutton as a father who’s as loyal to his daughter as a master to a beloved dog.
Hutton makes the old Southern war captain’s conflict not only understandable, but at times even adorable. His transition to slightly older roles has been wonderful to see. He seems to never have had so much fun.
But this is a production that people will most remember as the one that introduced them to Kate Hurster and Daria LeGrand.