The Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company
The Miracle Worker By William Gibson

Dates and Venue 10 - 31 October 2009, 8pm | Vancouver Playhouse

Director Meg Roe Set Design Allan Stitchbury Costume Design Sheila White Lighting Design John Webber Original Music and Sound Design Alessandro Juliana Fight Director David Bloom Stage Manager Rick Rinder

Reviewer Jane Penistan

The Playhouse’s presentation of the familiar story of Helen Keller and her governess Annie Sullivan is an outstanding production. In these days of advanced medical knowledge, it is difficult to understand how a child as disabled as Helen Keller could be in such an apparently abandoned situation. There seemed to be no help for her. This is the story of the rescue, education and rehabilitation of this unbelievably intelligent child by an earnest, unusual student in the U.S.A at the turn of the century.

Meg Roe directed her talented cast and ingenious crew with clarity, taste, intelligence and sensitivity. The characterization and acting of all the cast are of a high quality. The costumes are well designed and executed, almost fashion plates of late 19th century, well dressed, affluent citizens of the Southern United States.

While the opening setting initially appears bare and Spartan, this space is remarkably versatile and transforms into multitudinous exterior and interior aspects of a comfortable, well managed household. Much ingenuity is used in the construction and furnishing of the various rooms in the house, but there is no time lag in the scene changes, all of which are accomplished by the use of the revolving stage and the well drilled choreography of the cast members. John Webber’s lighting and the original music composed by Alessandro Juliani enhance the entire production.

The central characters of Helen and her governess are well matched. Margot Berner’s physical portrayal of the hopelessly frustrated, lonely, blind, deaf child is uncanny and haunting in its intensity. Her violent mood changes and rages, sly tricks and abusive belligerence, contrasted with her longing for understanding, and her affection for her mother are incredibly well demonstrated. Her gradual realization of what Annie Sullivan can reveal for her, and her own acceptance that she herself must and can co-operate and exert herself are subtly and gradually displayed. That she herself can exert power to get what she wants has been her one consolation in her isolation of misunderstood frustration.

Margot Berner’s performance and portrayal of this child is heartrending in its frustration and brilliant in its gradual realization of what Annie is offering her. Her own sense of humour returns to her with its sense of childish fun. This is a performance of a maturity far above what is expected from so young an actress, and is one which will remain as an outstanding achievement.

As Annie Sullivan, Anna Cummer has all the gaucheness of a nervous, but determined, intelligent young woman. Her courage and compassion, bewilderment and superficial self-assurance, and her desperate desire to bring light and understanding to Helen are all here in this commanding performance.Jennifer Clement as Kate Keller, Helen’s mother, has all the loving compassion of a mother for her daughter, and is distraught by her inability to help her child, or to appease her overbearing and impatient husband, Captain Keller.

She has great affection and compassion, humanity, sensitivity, sympathy and great courage in her unhappy situation but also the determination to find some way to rescue the family, particularly Helen, from an intolerable existence. Keeping the peace between Captain Keller and his son James, his sister, aunt Eve, and the household servants, and defending Helen and her disrupting tantrums from their threats and complaints, is becoming an impossibility. Her relief, hope and immediate affinity with Annie seem to be the answer to all her prayers. Her determination in the face of opposition and her management in tactfully deflating erupting family disputations are a model of thoughtfulness and intelligence. This is a most sophisticated and intelligent performance.

Captain Keller (Tom Butler) is a man accustomed to being obeyed at all times. An authoritarian, he finds himself in an unfamiliar position when no one, least of all himself, seems to have any control over Helen. An impatient man, easily angered, he is not without affection and compassion. He simply cannot understand why his authority does not control his disrupted household. Annie also shocks him by her apparent independence and lack of respect. Her determination to take charge of Helen and the length of time it takes for her to get through to Helen is also incomprehensible to him. His ultimate realisation of what she has accomplishes amazes him and the two have developed a mutual respect.

Ryan Beil, as James, Captain Keller’s son by a former marriage, plays this difficult part of a late adolescent. A spoilt rich man’s son, but also a young man kept as a child by an overbearing disciplinarian father, he still plays childish pranks, but gradually grows up through the play and finally begins to stand on his own feet.

The entire production is of a very high quality and is one of the best shows I have seen in Vancouver. This impressive opening bodes well for the rest of the season and is a production not to be missed on any account.

© 2009 Jane Penistan