The capacity crowd at Interplayers on opening night Friday may have been drawn because of Patty Duke, but its thundering applause was for Sarah Denison and Sophia Caruso.
Those are the two talented young actresses who make the characters of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller come to vivid life in this moving Interplayers production of “The Miracle Worker.”
Duke, of course, had plenty to do with it, too. She directed this production, marking one more milestone in her 55-year history with this play. Her direction is not showy, and it never calls attention to itself, but Duke’s lifelong immersion in Keller’s story and William Gibson’s script is evident in many of the performances in this 14-person cast.
It is most evident in Denison’s rock-solid performance as Annie. The set of Denison’s jaw and her rigid posture are particularly suited to communicating stubbornness and determination, the two absolutely vital characteristics needed to portray the woman known as “Teacher.” However, Denison’s performance reaches deeper and discovers something even more touching: Annie’s fear.
Occasionally, and powerfully, Denison lets Annie’s mask slip, and with a slight quiver of the lips and a momentary dart of the eyes, shows us that Annie is a 20-year-old girl who is, essentially, winging it. She’s been sent to do a job that she has no idea how to do and she has to improvise. She’s almost sure she’s doing the right thing – but not entirely. I wonder if this is an approach Duke helped Denison develop. In any case, it makes the story even more compelling.
It’s already one of the more compelling stories in American theater. Gibson has done a masterful job of distilling young Helen Keller’s story into its essential elements. Helen, blind and mute, is a wild child, striking out in her rage and frustration (and her own canny sense of entitlement) at everyone who loves her. Annie is brought in to tutor and tame her. But to do so, she must not allow herself or the Keller family to indulge in the easiest and least helpful of emotions, pity. She hardens herself and hardens the family. Eventually, she gives Helen the key to unlock the world: language.
Caruso is a riveting Helen. She’s 9, but she’s tiny and plays even younger. Yet her Helen is no wispy little creature. She’s a flailing dynamo of anger, thwarted will, calculated outrage and manipulation. The lasting image I’ll have of her is that of a tiny bundle of calico, with fists and feet flashing out in a blur.
Caruso’s face is exceptionally expressive. She glowers into the middle distance with lowered malevolent brows. Her mouth turns up in malicious glee over some outrage she plans to commit. Yet in several crucial scenes, we also see the pain, the frustration and the utter, childlike despair over the fact that she can’t even communicate her despair.
Many of the most powerful scenes arrive in the second act of this three-act play, when Annie moves out to the garden house with the girl. Alone together, they fight, they make life hell for each other, and they bond. It helps that these scenes are played far downstage, with the audience surrounding them.
Several key scenes in the first act lost some power because they were played so far upstage, on the floor of Annie’s room, with pieces of scenery intruding on the view.
The rest of Duke’s ensemble cast is polished and professional. Patrick Treadway, as the beleaguered father, and Elisha Gunn, as the heartbroken mother, are especially sympathetic even as their love for Helen causes them to do exactly the wrong things.
And the audience response? Well, I’ve attended every Interplayers production for 22 years, and I have never, ever, seen the audience continue applauding long after the actors had left the stage.
Even the actors didn’t quite know what to do.
They finally came back out for one more bow when it became clear that otherwise, the audience was never going to leave.