While the story of Helen Keller, and her breakthrough speared by Anne Sullivan, has been told countless times, this particular production is absolutely moving.
The show starts with Keller’s parents realizing that their baby has been inflicted by scarlet fever which left her both blind and deaf. As Keller grows up, her parents, lost of how to teach her the basics of life, reach out to Perkins School for the Blind for help.
In response, student-turned-teacher Sullivan is sent. While it’s tense for a while, Sullivan manages to teach Keller and makes a breakthrough with her connecting objects to language.
The cast is truly what makes this show a standout. Betsy Hogg, who plays Sullivan, is fiery and witty. The way she portrays Sullivan allows the real-life love to shine through a battle of tension between the two upon first interactions. Within the story of Keller, Sullivan’s own past breaks up scenes in a dramatic fashion and shares the burden she too faced.
The only person who upstages Hogg is Ayla Schwartz, the ten-year-old who plays Keller.
Even with an impressive resume, such as performing on off-Broadway’s “Madeline's Christmas” and local productions including “School of Rock” and “How to Eat Like a Child,” her acting amazes. Schwartz fully encompassed Keller. Her physical presence commanded the stage without Schwartz having to utter a single word besides “wawa” for water.
One of the most riveting scenes of the play occurred when Sullivan disciplines a tantrum-throwing Keller at breakfast. It’s masterfully done in a way that is almost hard to watch. The way the two went back-and-forth across the stage, grunting, hurling kitchenware, slapping one another, Sullivan trying to contain Keller from fighting. Their performance emphasized the arduous work that had to be done in order to make the breakthrough for Keller.
Supporting actors Mike Boland, Holly Ann Butler, Sarah Folkins and Conor Lawrence, all playing Keller’s family members, added to the story of the everyday relationship strains facing the family.
The set itself is impressive. The Keller’s home is two-levels and features a kitchen, office and a pair of bedrooms. The stage also features the cottage that Keller and Sullivan briefly stayed in during lessons.
The famous water pump sits squarely in front of the audience, which gives a heightened experience when Keller makes the connection between water and language.
To understand more precisely and give an accurate plot, the cast and crew, including Director Brant Russell, visited the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults, which is celebrating it's 50th Anniversary, for a unique learning experience. They underwent a "simulation experience" in which participants wore sleep shades and earplugs to experience some of what it is like to be both deaf and blind.
Cast members were also able to meet with deaf-blind students and staff to gain a better understanding of their challenges. Going the extra mile and taking such steps has truly abled them to put on a spectacular show.
There are only three more performances for “The Miracle Worker” at Queens Theatre: Thursday, May 18 at 2 p.m.; Saturday, May 20 at 2 p.m. & 8 p.m.; and Sunday, May 21 at 3 p.m.
Both performances on Saturday will have ASL Interpretation & Audio Description available and there will be a talkback with the actors following the 2 p.m. performance. Tickets range from $25 to $42. For tickets, visit the Queens Theatre website.