We hear and read stories about them and their lives while just sort of taking for granted how monumental and unprecedented their accomplishments were. At least, that’s certainly how I get sometimes, and so it is with the work of Anne Sullivan, the Irish-American teacher who helped Helen Keller overcome her crippling inability to see or speak.
“The Miracle Worker,” the latest production by Tyler Civic Theatre Center, is a nice reminder of how remarkable this story is.
The play opens with a doctor assuring Capt. Keller (Steve Swords) and his wife, Kate (Brianna Burke) that their infant daughter, Helen, will be on the mend soon despite her illness. However, it’s soon discovered that Helen’s sight and ability to speak have been lost as a result.
Helen (Hadyn Jennings) grows up undisciplined and constantly indulged and pandered to, essentially having her way with anything and everything as her parents know of no other way to deal with her handicaps other than perpetual appeasement. She kicks and throws tantrums, eats whatever she wishes off everyone’s plates at the table and generally behaves in an uncontrollable manner, to the point where she’s barely functional as a normal human being.
Nearing the end of their collective rope, to the point where Capt. Keller’s son, James (Jarratt Calvert), suggests putting her in a mental institution, the Kellers seek out the help of Anne Sullivan (Kaylee Nagel) to serve as a governess and teacher to their daughter, in the hopes that she tame the girl at least somewhat.
“The Miracle Worker” continues its run tonight at 7:30 at Tyler Civic Theatre Center. For tickets, information or additional performance dates, call 903-592-0561 or visit www.tylercivictheat re.com.
It’s the kind of story that I’m not sure would be believable were it not true, and William Gibson’s script does a great job of both taking us along this story but also emphasizing how groundbreaking Sullivan’s work was.
That said, the center of the play is very much the relationship between Anne and Helen, something that Nagel and Jennings accomplish well. Nagel is quite well cast as the stern and determined teacher, ably communicating her driven nature but also Sullivan’s insecurities as well.
Jennings, however, had perhaps the toughest job of the cast, as portraying characters with debilitating handicaps such as these can be tricky to pull off without appearing either over-the-top or distractingly inaccurate. Thankfully, director DeAnna Hargrove’s casting choices paid off (both here and across the board, it should be said) as Jennings is quite convincing in the part, able to both convey Helen’s handicaps in a convincing way while also communicating without ever saying a word.
“The Miracle Worker” is a good show. Hargrove has put together one of the better sets the center has used this season and the cast is uniformly solid, on top of this simply being one of the more inspirational stories in American history.