When Kelsey Venter played the sickly Fantine in Lamb’s Players critically acclaimed Les Misérables in 2014 no one would have dreamed that she would have the strength as Anne Sullivan, in Lamb’s very physical production of The Miracle Worker, to bodily lift the incorrigible and stubborn Helen Keller played with absolute resolve by Lucia Vecchio.
I can’t even imagine the emotional fortitude it would take for someone to do this night after night for weeks on end. Vecchio, who won the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle Award as Outstanding Young Artist as Anne Frank in OnStage’s 2012 production of The Diary of Anne Frank, must be at least two inches taller now, almost reaching Venter’s height yet disregarding any physical discomfort, both struggled gain the upper hand.
Vecchio, looked like the rag doll she was given by Sullivan as an introductory ‘getting to know you’ gift, while Venter dragged her from place to place when the girl refused to ‘listen’. Unless flight director Jordan Miller had a few tricks up his sleeve, it looked like the real deal.
The penetrating and stunning performances from and of both women is a compliment to each actor and to director Robert Smyth, (he directed the 1995 production) who is also quite busy tormenting his on and off stage wife Deborah Gilmour Smyth (sound design) in another critically acclaimed show Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a production of Intrepid Theatre, now at The Horton Grand downtown.
William Gibson’s 1959 classic The Miracle Worker is the story of two women, Anne Sullivan the teacher and Helen Keller the student. Their special bond united them in comradeship for 49 years allowing Keller to achieve, among other honors, the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree from Radcliff College, no less.
Helen Keller was born into an upper class family in Tuscumbia, Alabama in 1880. Mother Kate (Cynthia Gerber looking oh so refined in Jeanne Reith’s period costumes)) and Father, Captain Keller (Jason Heil) didn’t have a clue as to how to cope with their daughter’s severe disabilities, which after a devastating illness (some attribute it to scarlet fever) at age 19 months, left her deaf and blind and mute.
As the result of not being able to handle their daughter’s disabilities they let her roam around the house inside and out undisciplined, completely unmanageable and throwing uncontrollable tantrums when she couldn’t get her way. Sullivan would have none of it. Though compassionate, she ruled with an iron hand. Helen was seven at the time. Her parents were desperate to seek out help.
Anne Sullivan, a recent graduate of Perkins intuition was twenty years old when the director of Perkins recommended her for the job of ‘teaching’ Helen. In stark contrast, Sullivan grew up in an asylum/ orphanage in Massachusetts, often living with rodents and filth. She too was visually impaired but with a series of surgeries was able to have some vision. While a student at Perkins School for the Blind, she became proficient in ‘the manual alphabet using her fingers to spell out words’, a skill she tried with not much success in the beginning of her long relationship with Helen.
Gibson’s 1957 play is based on the life Helen Keller. It was later made into a movie in 1962. Originally it was a 1957 broadcast as a television anthology series on Playhouse 90 and was called The Story of my Life. The play and the movie stared Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Bancroft went on to win the Academy Award as Best Actress and Duke as Best Supporting Actress. In 1979 it was remade for television with Duke as Anne.
The original play has three acts. For this production we see a scaled down version; an intense 90 minutes with all players on board including some not seen. Every now and then Anne is haunted by a promise she made to her brother not to leave him in the orphanage. Unfortunately circumstances beyond her control brought her to the Keller household. When his voice penetrates the now pleading for Anne’s help, it has a tendency to break the concentrated business at hand. It’s a distraction, but thankfully not a major one.
The production starts off in total darkness and patrons are asked to remain silent and sit quietly for a few moments, which seemed to this reviewer like an eternity. Soon voices can be heard from behind dimly lit curtains almost as a Greek Chorus, giving us some background information about the players, Sullivan’s in particular. Soon thereafter small spot of light finds its way to the stage and a hand finds the light (Nathan Pierson). We are off and running.
Mike Buckley’s semi realistic multi level (Anne’s bedroom) set features a working water pump off center stage where much of the play happens. It also figures as a reminder that water was the catalyst that brought light into Helen’s life when she felt the running water and put it together with the word W A T E R spelled into her hand (and not a dry eye to be seen) by her tenacious teacher.
Heil and Gerber (who played Helen in the 1995 production opposite Deborah Gilmour Smyth) are an ideal pair. They play off one another perfectly as parents, frustrated beyond reproach as to what’s best for their child. Hampered on some level, Captain Keller’s son James, (a formidable Charles Evans, Jr.) from a former marriage, is caught up between wanting to exert his independence from his overpowering father and wanting to be sympathetic with his stepmother’s decisions to give Anne the time she needed alone with Helen.
Adding a bit of humor to the dim realities of life in the Keller home, maid Viney (Yolanda Franklin) does a three step, (one forward, two back) every time someone in the Keller family changed his or her mind. One thing was certain however she had deep seeded feelings for Helen.
Lamb’s production kicks off its 45-year, and what tribute to how far the theatre has come from a small in the round venue in National City to a state of the arts theatre on one of Coronado’s busiest Avenues. ‘Telling good stories’ has been the mainstay of the theatre and this one must rate as… well 45 years is a long time to remember and this reviewer’s memory might be able to go there, but won’t. Suffice it to say, this will go down as one of the ‘better stories’.
Some might want to have sympathy for Helen Keller. Rather she has led by example and fortitude not by sympathy, just by love, adventure, compassion and a passion to learn.
A must see. Bring tissues!
The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision. H.K.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through April 10th
Organization: Lamb’s Players Theatre
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1142 Orange Ave. Coronado, CA92118
Ticket Prices: Start $24.00