14 April 2011

Review of "The Miracle Worker"

Last night I attended a Players of the Stage production of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, directed by Sharon Barshinger. The Miracle Worker is the powerful, moving story of Helen Keller, Annie Sullivan, and Helen’s family. These young actors gave a superb performance, professional in mood, tone, character development, physical stage business, and technique. Particularly remarkable were Marian Barshinger, a high school senior, as Annie Sullivan, and Elizabeth Marlin, age ten, as Helen.

When The King’s Speech was in all the pre-Oscars discussions, critics and reviewers kept praising Colin Firth for his excellent acting, and they continually added a statement like: “not just because a man without a stutter stuttered so well.” That’s true. And yet he did do that stutter extremely well. The tiny girl playing Helen Keller gave a similarly virtuousic performance last night, too: what struck us audience members first was her convincing representation of deafness and (especially) blindness. Her eyes were unfocused, but open, through the entire play, her expression blank around the eyes even when her mouth smiled or frowned. Her zombie-style walk was perhaps a little overdone, but added more to the eerie feeling her parents experienced at their own ineptitude in dealing with her. Yet her performance was more than just vacant eyes: it had an emotional depth remarkable for someone of her age, as she played Helen’s temper tantrums, sly moments of deceit, flashed of love for a doll or a dog, and final revelation of the meaning of language.

An emotional depth beyond their years was a theme throughout this play. Marian Barshinger, age eighteen, brought to Annie Sullivan a whole history of suffering, brokenness, horror, grief, guilt, and stiff-necked strength. She played the difficult private scenes, of Annie’s auditory hallucinations and anguish over her brother’s death, as well as she played her tough moments of stubborn pride and conviction. What’s more, she played the director’s chosen themes with subtle grace.

The director, Sharon Barshinger, wrote a “director’s note” for the beginning of the program that expounded upon the themes she chose to highlight in this production. The play is well-written and rich with ideas, experiences, and symbolism. Sharon chose to emphasize the themes of mental/spiritual blindness and of “living death”: the idea that “many of us are really just living dead, unable to break free from the sorrows of our past.” In her production, Annie was conflicted and co-dependent, obsessed with teaching Helen language but unable to love her. Helen’s parents are unwilling to put Helen away in an asylum, but unwittingly treat her like a spoiled animal, refusing to require human decorum from her. Helen is selfish and uncontrolled, devoured by her impossible search for knowledge.

The most impressive technical aspect of this play is the “fight scenes.” Biographically, Annie and Helen did have a five-hour fight one day as Annie began to establish dominance and require discipline. In the play, this scene is agonizing, yet riveting, to watch as Marian and Elizabeth fight it out with naturalistic energy and pain. I could not believe how far they took the physical interactions in this fight, nor could I believe that they were acting. Slapping, kicking, pushing, pulling, Annie carrying Helen, Helen jumping over and under the table or hanging on to a chair: there were some serious bruises when that fight was over. But it was also beautifully choreographed and had a rhythmic development of its own. It fell into episodes: Helen trying to eat from Annie’s plate, then throwing spoons, then refusing to sit in her chair, then trying to get away from Annie by any means: each episode grew more violent than the last, punctuated with gentle humour in Annie’s facial expressions (she just would not give up!) and the pauses when Helen seemed to give in, then spit scrambled eggs in Annie’s face or dove for the door. It was very well done.

One more thought before I close. This is youth theatre, but only because the actors are young and the stories/shows they perform are appropriate for young (as well as old) audiences. There is nothing amateur about the acting technique Sharon requires of her young cast. While the shows are held in a church, with limited staging options available, the fact that this is “children’s theatre” should not mean it isn’t top-notch. This is not a bunch of kids in Daddy’s bathrobes acting out characters with giggles and blunders. This is real theatre. The fact that the actors are young only adds to their energy and should only add to the positive nature of their critical reception.

So, go and see it! What are you waiting for? There are still four more performances!

DATES: Thursday, Friday and Saturday, April 14-16 at 7 PM
Saturday April 16 at 2 PM

PLACE: Living Hope Presbyterian Church, 330 Schantz Rd, Wescosville, PA.

COST: It's FREE!!! ...but please come prepared to help the Jamaica Christian School for the Deaf.

TICKETS: email with your name, date you'd like to attend, and the number of people, or call 610-923-6742. Your tickets will be held for you at the door.


Elizabeth said...

The show was indeed amazing - I was moved back and forth from laughter to tears multiple times. I went again on Thursday night to see Cast 2 where Annie is played by Katianne Janney, another high school senior, and Helen is played by Lauren Derminio, age 13. The two casts have different dynamics, chemistry, and to some extent interpretations, and are both worth seeing. Katianne and Lauren's fight scene came across as more comical than Marian and Elizabeth's, and the children in the audience were roaring with laughter at the flying eggs. Katianne plays a more awkward, socially inept, and angry Annie than does Marian. I found her less immediately likable than Marian's portrayal, but the other characters' initial negative reactions to her make more sense. When the lights first rise on her, she has her eyes scrunched tightly shut in pain at the light, and she continues to show her eye pain whenever she takes her dark glasses off. Whichever cast you go to see, I couldn't agree more that these are not blundering children in bathrobes and everyone should see it!

Iambic Admonit said...


I saw Cast 2 on Saturday evening and completely agree with your description of the differences. Cast 2 was much funnier, with more anger, and bitterness than Cast 1, but Cast 1 had greater emotional depth. Cast 1 was more technically excellent and more thoughtful, but Cast 1 was slightly more fun to watch. The main characters were excellent in both; the smaller roles in Cast 2 were played by less skillful actors. The production as a whole was just stellar. Really, really amazing!