Lines of Communication 

Tennessee Repertory Theatre connects with a stirring rendition of a well-known classic

Tennessee Repertory Theatre connects with a stirring rendition of a well-known classic

The Miracle Worker

Presented by the Tennessee Repertory Theatre through Nov. 3 at TPAC’s Polk Theater

Events last weekend at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center exhibited Nashville’s fine arts scene not only in full swing but in full flowering. While Nashville Opera’s production of Puccini’s Turandot thrilled thousands in Jackson Hall, Tennessee Repertory Theatre opened its second show of the fall season, William Gibson’s popular classic The Miracle Worker, in Polk Theater.

The film version of Gibson’s play was a huge smash some 40 years ago, featuring history-making (and Academy Award-winning) performances by Anne Bancroft and then-child star Patty Duke. Alas, theater companies everywhere have been challenged since to achieve productions with as much impact as the celluloid counterpart. But no apologies need be made by The Rep. With a quiet, insistent sense of itself, director Todd Olson’s staging brings this timeless story movingly to life.

In fact, it could be argued that this production—all things considered—represents Olson’s finest work since he arrived in Nashville nearly three years ago. Comparisons are odious, of course, and it’s probably true that Olson’s previous productions of An Ideal Husband (1999) and Wit (2000) represented higher-toned, more sophisticatedly substantial theater. Nevertheless, there is a warmth in this Miracle Worker that can’t be ignored. Nor can it be blithely ascribed to its sentimental (but still compelling) subject matter: the remarkable tutelage of the deaf-mute-blind child Helen Keller by the young immigrant Irishwoman Annie Sullivan.

Olson gets key assists from the right performers, yet this only reinforces the wisdom of his casting choices. Furthermore, in moving his actors about on yet another of Gary C. Hoff’s wonderful sets, the director consistently allows the story to unfold with grace and a surprising amount of bittersweet humor, yet with lovely stage pictures created along the way (and without any overt sense of the saccharine).

Shortly after lights up, we find ourselves in the midst of the Keller household in Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1887. The pall of the defeated South still hangs in the air, as the Kellers face a huge civil war of their own, the cause of which is young Helen, whose disturbing and pathetic presence evinces intrafamily grief, anxiety, bitterness and hopelessness.

The set-up seems overlong, and indeed, about a third of the way through the first act, one fears that this production might suffocate from inertia in the Alabama heat. But with the arrival of the feisty Sullivan, a Bostonian who is herself partially blind, the relational—and cultural—gauntlet is thrown down, and the human dimensions of the drama take off.

Sullivan the teacher—a Northerner—represents, especially to proud Rebel patriarch Capt. Arthur Keller, both fear and hope, and his dinner-table banter with son James about the military skills of Ulysses S. Grant vs. Robert E. Lee serves as effective foreshadowing of the battle that is to begin in the name of the challenged Helen’s future life.

Anna Stone’s portrayal of Sullivan is wisely and subtly rendered. We feel her pain as she recalls her own troubled past as an orphan forced to deal with her brother’s premature death. And yet, with fierce courage—but without bravado—she sticks up for herself and her methods for teaching communication skills (i.e., fingerspelling) to Helen, who was played opening night with admirable concentration and believability by 12-year-old Margaret Durkovic. (Maggie Jones is The Rep’s “other” Helen, playing the role on alternating evenings.)

Also shining in the cast is Julie Rowe as Kate Keller, Helen’s mother. This is Rowe’s most substantive role on the Rep stage, and hers is the big surprise performance of the evening. Radiating faith and gentleness, she nicely balances maternal devotion with the growing realization of her daughter’s desperate need for light in a world of darkness. To that end, she graciously, if haltingly, grants household interloper Sullivan the necessary freedom to complete her monumental task.

Christian Whelan ultimately turns in an earnest and heartfelt, if occasionally stiff, characterization as father Keller, the man who learns, in the aftermath of the not-too-far-removed truce at Appomattox, the humility—and eventual gratitude—of being bested by a strong-willed foe. Of course, the real victor, he finally comes to see, is his brilliant but heretofore tragically thwarted daughter.

Brandon Boyd does a nice job as James, Helen’s elder half-brother, who struggles mightily in attempting to come to grips with his burgeoning manhood and his difficult relationship with his stern, demanding father. Boyd’s character transforms nobly from jealous sibling to young man of strength, wisdom and, indeed, of prescience where Helen’s needs are concerned. Solid support is provided by the rest of the cast, including Glory Kissel, Helen Shute-Pettaway and Kenzie Buttrey.

But enough can’t be said about The Rep’s estimable designer Hoff, who serves up a distinctive set that is attractive, period-appropriate, serviceable to the play’s multilevel needs, and represents the best that can be found in American regional theater. In addition, his effectively moody backgrounds seem to breathe with the production’s shifting dramatic temperament, from earthy but austere slatwork to a full-moon-filled Alabama sky. Jeff Brewer deserves kudos for lighting the proceedings efficiently yet sensitively, and Olivia Koach’s costumes quietly and authentically evoke time and place.

No, this isn’t groundbreaking drama happening at The Rep. But it is high-caliber professional theater, worthy of a wide audience, both young and old. Hats off to all concerned for taking an aging chestnut of a play and lovingly infusing it with new spirit and meaning.

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