Theater Review - 'The Miracle Worker'
Tuesday, April 9, 2019 at 11:49PM
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Theater Review - The Miracle Worker’ by Jeb Ladouceur Produced by Theatre Three, Port Jefferson


Our history is peppered with uncounted instances of accomplishments that are so complex they sometimes boggle the mind. Occasionally, these phenomenal successes are all the more compelling because they stem from symbiotic relationships … that is to say they could not have been achieved without an interdependent bond between a pair of participants.

In this regard, one thinks immediately of the indomitable Wright Brothers, sibling Inventors who seemed able to peer into one another’s minds as they went about breaking the chains that theretofore had bound them to Earth. In Music, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Gershwin Brothers, and Rogers and Hammerstein were visionaries in their own discipline, each pair’s partner feeding off of his artistic counterpart in order to produce works that likely would have been impossible were it not for their collaboration.

We recognize the phenomenon in the field of Exploration too (Stanley and Livingston, as well as Lewis and Clark are examples) and in Literature … consider the unusual twosome of Truman Capote and Harper Lee. Indeed, few areas of interest to us as observers are without one or more of these famed sets of dual colleagues.

But perhaps the most unique team embodying synergetic interaction that we’ve encountered in our time is that of an 8-year-old child named Helen Keller who was blind and deaf, and the 20-year-old woman who became her teacher. The tutor’s name was Annie Sullivan, and her heroic story is as familiar as it was improbable.

To this day, incredulous observers ask themselves, “How does one teach a pupil to communicate when the prospective student has been deprived of three of her five senses since early childhood?” That was the challenge Annie Sullivan faced (and accepted) when in real life she agreed to instruct obstreperous Helen by ‘writing’ in the letters of the Manual Alphabet on the child’s palm … and then by insisting on her obedience.

Veteran Theatre Three director, Bradlee Bing, must have faced a stern and similar test when confronted with the prospect of finding a child young enough to play a convincing little Helen, while possessing the innate maturity to interpret such a demanding role effectively. But fortune smiled on Bing in the person of 11-year-old Cassandra LaRocco, a sixth grader with all the stage presence and instincts of an actress twice her age.

However casting Cassandra in ‘The Miracle Worker’ was only half of Bradlee Bing’s test. Now he had to find his title character … an early-twenty-year-old ‘Annie Sullivan’ who is a no-nonsense, second-generation Irish-American lass … with a touch of brogue, and the patience of Job. I have it on good authority that at her initial audition, Jessica Mae Murphy read five lines … and Director Bing announced that he had found his ‘Miracle Worker.’

This thrilling play by William Gibson premiered at Broadway’s Playhouse Theatre in 1959 with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke playing Annie and Helen respectively. Not only did ‘The Miracle Worker’ win four Tonys, the eventual film also produced Academy Awards for Bancroft and Duke in their leading roles. 

Interestingly, the play as it’s staged at Port Jefferson’s 160-year-old Theatre Three is not without its rare comic moments. This is largely because of Jessica Mae Murphy’s instinctive awareness of precisely when the audience is dying for a chance to laugh … even if only briefly. Murphy never overdoes it, mind you (she’s too much the consummate professional to commit such a gaffe) but by the same token the supremely talented woman never fails to respond appropriately when her patrons send their silent but unmistakable signal for comic relief. It’s grand to watch her work.

As the whole world knows, Annie Sullivan was ultimately successful in making Helen Keller the notable international celebrity that she became, but there’s a back story in this play, and Bradlee Bing makes sure it is properly presented. While little Helen is the primary focus of everyone’s concern, her father, Captain Keller (Michael Newman), has his own problem putting up with Helen’s disability. Annie quickly realizes that the doctrinaire Captain, too, needs her counseling … and she’s just the person to dish it out.

Susan Emory plays Helen’s sympathetic mother to perfection, and Eric J. Hughes (as brother James) provides a truly memorable culminating scene to balance his otherwise understated role. 

This fine production runs thru April 28th.

 

Award-winning writer, Jeb Ladouceur is the author of a dozen novels, and his theater and book reviews appear in several major L.I. publications. His recent hit, THE GHOSTWRITERS, explores the bizarre relationship between the late Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Ladouceur’s newly completed thriller, THE SOUTHWICK INCIDENT, was introduced at the Smithtown Library on May 21st. The book involves a radicalized Yale student and his CIA pursuers. Mr. Ladouceur’s revealing website is www.JebsBooks.com 

 

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