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The Miracle Worker' engages, inspires

January 19, 2016
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Orono Community Theatre presents stage classic

ORONO One of the most touching and inspirational stories ever to grace the American stage has been brought to life in Orono.

Orono Community Theatre's production of 'The Miracle Worker' - written by William Gibson as an adaptation of Helen Keller's autobiography 'The Story of My Life' and directed by Angela Bonacasa is now playing at the Cyrus Pavilion Theatre on the University of Maine campus. The show runs through January 24.

'The Miracle Worker' tells the story of young Helen Keller (Sophia Mullins), a girl struck blind and deaf by an illness in her infancy. Despite the best efforts of her mother (Amy Moran) and father (Mark Bilyk), there doesn't seem to be any way to reach Helen, whose frustration and anger spill over into uncontrollable tantrums that dominate the household.

In a last-ditch act of desperation, the Kellers seek someone anyone who might be able to reach their daughter. The person they find is Annie Sullivan (Jasmine Ireland), a young lady barely out of her teens whose perspective regarding Helen's circumstances Annie was blind herself for a period of time might just be the key to unlocking the darkness of Helen's world.

Sullivan is surrounded by doubters. Helen's parents are both less than convinced of this young girl's ability to teach their daughter, while Captain Keller's son James (Tyler Costigan) and sister Evelyn (Sunny Kirkham) aren't the least bit shy about expressing misgivings of their own.

Still, Annie believes in Helen. She believes that Helen can be so much more than a broken burden. She believes that Helen can learn and love and live just like any other child; she just needs to be shown the way. And after all the obstacles that life placed in Annie Sullivan's path along the way obstacles that she overcame through fortitude and force of will she is not going to give up on Helen Keller.

There are few people unfamiliar with the story of Helen Keller. That makes mounting a production of 'The Miracle Worker' a bit tricky. It's not that the story is boring far from it, actually. But we've seen it before. Therefore, successfully producing the show comes down to finding ways to breathe life into a story that, while undeniably important, has been told many times before.

Ultimately, 'The Miracle Worker' soars or sinks on the strength of the performances given by the actresses playing Helen and Annie and in this production, they are strong indeed. Helen Keller is one of the most challenging roles a young actress can play, a part that requires a rare degree of commitment and fortitude. Sophia Mullins proves up to the task, filling Helen with fire and rage while still finding ways to bring forth moments of emotional complexity. Meanwhile, Ireland is also tasked with finding balance; she moves between the no-nonsense tough love interactions with Helen and the subtle feelings of insecurity and loss that spring from her troubled past.

And of course, the dynamic between the two is the show's very foundation. The trust and truth of that relationship has to build both slowly and surely; these actresses have clearly established a genuine connection that serves them well on the stage. In short, each of their performances is elevated by that of the other.

However, two performances do not a show make. This ensemble does some fine work, fleshing out the insular world of the Keller household. Moran and Bilyk strike the right notes as Helen's parents; Kirkham and Costigan are engaging as well. The rest of the cast is also good; Tellis Coolong and Pamela Bester in particular take solid turns.

One of the aspects of this story that often gets lost is its physicality. It makes sense tactility is often all that's left when sight and sound are absent yet you rarely see it explored with any depth. Director Angela Bonacasa embraces the show's physical side; she has a background in stage combat and fight choreography and it shows. Physical contact is the key connection between Helen and those around her; Bonacasa's direction never shies away from that reality. Occasionally, the physical nature of these interactions ventures toward the extreme, but always in service to the story; the devotion to the tactile allows for long stretches where speech is absent that are nevertheless heavy with narrative meaning.

The Pavilion Theatre is a wonderful and unique theatrical space. Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs has maximized the space's potential, marrying form and function in a particularly engaging manner. Add to that an effective lighting design from Scout Hough and some solid costuming from Belinda Hobbs and you have a show whose production values can stand alongside any company, community or otherwise.

'The Miracle Worker' is an emotionally powerful story. It's the sort of show that is tough to do badly but even tougher to do really well. Orono Community Theatre has succeeded in that more difficult task, injecting new energy into a part of the American canon.

(Tickets are available at Orono Pharmacy or by calling 866-4103. Seating is limited, so advance tickets are recommended. More information can be found on the OCT Facebook page.)

Last modified on Wednesday, 27 January 2016 19:11

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