It has to be daunting to stage “The Miracle Worker” in Coeur d’Alene, the town Patty Duke called home for two decades.
As a teenager, Duke played Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl, and won an Oscar. As an adult, she portrayed Annie Sullivan, the teacher who brought language to Helen’s world, and won an Emmy. In her later years, she added another layer to her relationship with William Gibson’s play, when she directed it for Interplayers in Spokane in 2011.
Now it’s the Lake City Playhouse’s turn to tell the famous story.
The play itself is tricky for several reasons, the least of which is that its success rests with two young characters, the 20-year-old Annie and the child Helen. In Marta Myers, director Brooke Wood found a terrific Annie Sullivan. Casting Helen is more problematic, as it requires a child. Quinn Troye, a Coeur d’Alene fourth grader making her LCP debut, is clearly up to the task. The two work well together.
The roles are physically demanding as well – Annie frequently picks up a tantrum-throwing Helen, and the two often wrestle on the ground as Annie fights to gain Helen’s trust. It looks exhausting, but Troye and Myers manage the physicality of their roles well.
Another challenge is the sheer familiarity of the story. Even if you’ve never seen “The Miracle Worker,” you know the story. Keller was born in 1880 in Alabama, and could hear and see until she was about 18 months old, when an illness left serious and lasting damage. Although she was able to use some signs, it was up to Sullivan to teach the girl that everything in the world has a name. Sullivan, a Yankee, grew up poor, and contracted an illness that left her visually impaired for much of her life.
To help offset this challenge, Wood sets this play in a black-box style stage. The sets are minimal, the walls decorated with braille writing and projected quotes. It’s an effective device, and allows the audience to focus on the performances and the powerful story they tell.
Rounding out the Keller household are Helen’s parents, Capt. Keller (Eric Fuhriman) and Kate Keller (Monica Thomas), half-brother James (Caid Wood), aunt Ev (Kari Gilge), the housekeeper Viney (Jessica Peterson), and Percy (Rylan Dixon) and Martha (Mihret Washington), two servants.
It’s a fraught situation as the Kellers frequently disagree about how to deal with wild child Helen. Thomas, as Kate, does a lovely job presenting parental love and guilt, and negotiating with her husband, a former Confederate officer now running a newspaper. As the captain, Fuhriman captures his character’s quest for order, even as he struggles to express love for his children.
All told, Lake City Playhouse succeeds in making “The Miracle Worker” a story worth revisiting. It’s a well-produced, well-paced and well-acted night at the theater.
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