|L-R: Stacia Paglieri (portraying Kate Keller), Rick Dutrow (portraying Captain Keller), Peter Stamerra (portraying James Keller),and Kendall Knotts (portraying Helen Keller)|
It’s hard to imagine what it must be like for a 6-year-old to be deaf, blind and unable to communicate with words, yet have an active mind able to relate to the world only through the senses of smell and touch.
But that’s the agonizing case of young Helen Keller, cutoff from a normal childhood when stricken with a fever at 19 months at her home in Tuscumbia, Alabama.
A glimmer of hope in this true-to-life story dawns on the Keller household on March 5, 1887, with the arrival of Annie Sullivan, a 20-year-old teacher from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Herself once afflicted by blindness, Sullivan was recently cured of hr\er affliction after a series of painful eye operations.
Playwright William Gibson wrote a biographical drama of Keller’s early childhood titled The Miracle Worker. Eventually, a cinematic version with the same title, again written by Gibson, won Oscars in 1962 for Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Currently, Prime Stage Theatre is staging Gibson’s play at the New Hazlett Theatre on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
The play opens with a feral Helen brawling with a friend named Martha (Adjoa Opoku-Dakwa) outside the Keller home. Due to her tragic circumstances, Helen’s family spoils her and allows her so much emotional leeway that she’s become an uncontrollable and fitful ruler of the household.
Holland Adele Taylor (portraying Annie Sullivan), Kendall Knotts (portraying Helen Keller) and Stacia Pagliere (portraying Kate Keller), Photos by Laura Slovesko
Sullivan’s arrival introduces a moderating force that introduces an element of discipline that soon develops into an antagonistic rivalry between the child and her new teacher.
As Sullivan, Holland Adele Taylor has her work cut out for her. Not only must she battle the headstrong Helen, but she also has to persuade Helen’s father (Rich Dutrow), mother (Stasia Paglieri) and doting aunt (Lynne Franks) that her rigorous tactics are for the child’s own good.
Only Helen’s half-brother, James (Peter Stamerra), see the good in Sullivan’s ruthless purposefulness.
Adding to Sullivan’s burden are the recurring demons that beset her, reminding her of her young brother, who she left behind at the same asylum she once shared with him.
In one especially poignant scene, the family is having breakfast when Helen is seen going from plate to plate helping herself to everyone’s food with her bare hands, as is her custom. Sullivan objects to this and tries to teach the girl a bit of dining etiquette. Helen will have none of it and a battle between teacher and pupil breaks out that almost destroys the contents of the dining room.
Exasperated with Helen’s family’s mollycoddling and pampering, she proposes to live with Helen in the family’s hunting lodge for two weeks in an attempt to teach her the meaning of words by shaping her hand in 26 configurations, one for each letter of the alphabet. Only the young Percy (Ezra Archibald) is allowed to assist her at their new abode.
Sullivan relentlessly, even passionately, tries to get Helen to understand that the letters form words that refer to actual objects. After two weeks of trying, the two week trial period is over with little success.
When Helen returns home for a welcome back dinner, things take a dramatic turn that packs such an emotional impact those with a tender disposition are best advised to take along a hanky.
Kendall Knotts (portraying Helen Keller) and Cole Datsko (portraying Cole the dog)Photos by Laura Slovesko
The entire cast from top to bottom is solid. Director Wayne Brinda made some excellent casting decisions, starting with the remarkable Kendall Knotts, a fifth grader at Central Christian Academy, who plays Helen flawlessly. Knotts conveys the posture and ambulation of the sightless girl as she plays her role over all sections of set designer, Johnmichael Bohach’s inventive three-tiered configuration of the Keller residence.
Knotts also has the physical endurance to act out her fits and bouts of frenzied tantrums as well as battle on a visceral level during her skirmishes with her teacher., which can become quite heated
Gibson’s play has an interesting side story, that of Helen’s father, a.k.a. Captain Keller, and his son, James, who tries to free himself from the domineering head of household. As the Captain’s wife, Paglieri also shows remarkable independence of thought and willfulness, considering the patriarchal era in which the drama is set.
I’d be terribly remiss if I failed to mention Linda Haston in the supporting role of Viney. Haston adds a lot of texture and nuance to her role and is a delight to watch every time she’s on stage. In the past, she’s wowed the audience and critics alike with her previous work, especially in her one-character drama, Mother Lode, presented at the Carnegie Stage.
In another supporting role, John Dolphin portrays Dr. Anagnos, Annie’s mentor and advisor at the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
Prime Stage masterfully opens its 27th season with a classic that still manages to evoke strong emotions and an uplifting narrative of a truly unique individual. Despite all her obstacles and impediments, Keller went on to become a world renowned author, lecturer and activist as well as the first deaf blind person in the United States to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree after graduating from Radcliffe College of Harvard University.
The Miracle Worker, a Prime Stage Theater production, is at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh’s North Side through November 12. For tickets, go to https://primestage.com/events/.