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October 24, 2002

Miracle is more disturbing than uplifting

From: The Globe and Mail, Canada
Oct. 24, 2002


Thursday, October 24, 2002 – Page R8

The Miracle Worker

Written by William Gibson

Directed by Leah Cherniak

Starring Carmen Grant and Mary Krohnert

At the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre

for Young People in Toronto

Rating: **

Helen Keller was truly miraculous: the deaf, dumb and blind child who, if she didn't play a mean pinball, did learn to communicate, and would end up learning four languages, become an international advocate for the disabled, even fly a plane. Her life story is an inspirational testament to the triumph of human will over incredible adversity. Unfortunately, the latest production of The Miracle Worker isn't.

The show at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People is earnest and well meaning, but while it delivers the narrative goods, it's gloomy and strangely inhumane, if not disturbing.

William Gibson's 1959 play isn't entirely about Helen Keller, but about the indomitable, partially blind young woman who taught her, Annie Sullivan. But in this production, apart from an initial exposition, we don't learn too many details about Annie's life and are continually haunted by a subplot involving the death of Annie's brother, Jimmy, when they were both kids in the orphanage, a hinted-at tragedy that doesn't materialize on stage. Instead, The Miracle Worker concentrates on the miracle.

And it's an ominous one. Annie's constant refrain is a declaration that she will teach the child to be obedient, since "obedience is the gateway through which knowledge enters the child" -- a rather stern piece of didacticism to have in a play aimed at kids.

The iron-willed disciplinarian locks Helen indoors, denies her food unless she folds her napkin, slaps her back when Helen strikes her, all in an effort to teach her sign language, to break her without breaking her spirit. Even knowing that these tactics are deployed to bring Helen out, it's acutely uncomfortable to watch, like seeing a screaming child being disciplined in a restaurant.

The difficulty of teaching Helen is hard to convey with sympathy and honesty at the same time. In this case, neither are present. It's hard to tell whether the fault with the performances lies with director Leah Cherniak, the talented mind behind such projects as Gynty and The Betrayal,or with the actors. It's not so much that the rhythm of the dialogue feels like a metronome whose battery is dying, which it does, but that the actors interact in a dull and unconnected way as if they're just reciting their lines. This only emphasizes the irony of Annie's assertions that language is the key to enlightenment for Helen. At two hours and 15 minutes, the play feels much longer.

As Helen's parents, Greg Ellwand and Stephanie Belding are trapped in superficial roles and come across almost as grey as the set. Paul Braunstein is alternately oily and pathetic as Helen's half-brother, who tries to stand up to his father once and for all.

The leads are better. Mary Krohnert shows she's willing to take risks and, to her credit, her Helen is pretty credible and tasteful; she never veers too far into feral behaviour, and never becomes overly sentimental. It's really only Carmen Grant's grit and determination as Annie Sullivan that provides any real spark. But it's like taking a match to wet wood.

Though it seems crammed at times, Charlotte Dean's set has some deft touches: Its lack of colour signals both the visual dullness that Helen perceives and, perhaps, also the dullness of her emotional environment. Of course, it's also dull to look at. Andrea Lundy's lighting also tries to emulate Helen's world, with many scenes starting in incredibly low light, only slowly emerging out of the darkness. It works intellectually, while leaving a lot of the action in the dark.

Ultimately, the conformist hard-line of the play softens near the end when Annie does stress that "obedience without understanding is blindness too." At the very end, there's a moment when Helen finally realizes that things have names, and she explodes into signing out words, communicating for the first time. It should be a moment of profound revelation and release. Unfortunately, the impact of the moment is defused by occurring far too late in too weak a play. What's more, the coda is a series of photographs of Helen's future successes in life, only emphasizing how, except as an afterthought, we're still not interested in Helen the human, merely Helen the child who must be tamed.
The Miracle Worker continues in Toronto to Dec. 15. For more information: 416-862-2222.

© 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.