Wright State University opens its 38th season with a wonderfully heartfelt production of William Gibson’s 1959 Tony Award-winning drama “The Miracle Worker,” the compelling account of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan set in Tuscumbia, Alabama and based on Keller’s 1903 autobiography “The Story of My Life.”
As the deaf, blind and mute Helen, Kate Mueller, a musical theater major, is an impressively expressive presence. With wide eyes and childlike wonder, Mueller, never resorting to off-kilter or exaggerated dramatics, beautifully grasps Helen’s yearning to communicate more fully through sign language while trapped by her own fussy stubbornness and the unhelpful sheltering of overly doting parents. She also makes the smallest revelations prodigious, particularly in Act 2 when Helen, inquisitively sensing competition, becomes jealous of her playmate Percy, adorably played by Julian Rojas.
Helen’s fascinating evolution, astutely guided by director Lee Merrill who doesn’t discount the strain and brokenness within the Keller household, is firmly molded by the commanding presence of Cyndii Johnson, an African-American, as the determined, unflinching and incredibly dedicated Annie, a true survivor in her own right scarred by the harrowing memories of living in a Massachusetts asylum with her brother. Johnson’s non-traditional casting doesn’t work in the play’s societal context, but her stringent, no-nonsense demeanor and occasionally curt attitude registers perfectly as Annie spins the Kellers into a slight frenzy, providing numerous moments of refreshing levity. Even so, it is the special relationship she shares with Mueller that provides the production’s riveting pulse. The volatile breakfast scene, an Act 1 highpoint skillfully aided by combat consultant Bruce Cromer, is a terrifically executed, meticulously paced fury of flying spoons, force-feeding, kicks and screams concluding with a folded napkin signaling victory and relief. More significant are the final iconic moments when Helen’s mastery of 18 nouns and three verbs culminates with her recognition of water, a truly tear-jerking epiphany superbly syncopated by Johnson, Mueller, Merrill and lighting designer Danielle Ferguson.
Additionally, Kelsey Andrae and Andrew Quiett are a solid team as Helen’s parents. Quiett especially creates a properly prickly rapport with Johnson as Captain Keller and Annie battle for authority over Helen. As Helen’s snippy stepbrother Jamie, Cameron Blankenship strikingly depicts the overlooked anger of living in Helen’s shadow while desiring more love, encouragement and support from his emotionally detached father. Kevin Blessing, DeLee Cooper, Tyler Edwards, Caroline Gruber, Amie Lea Heller, Xander Hildenbrandt, Anita Hill, Stephen Kell, Taylor Montgomery, Liz Romey, Tyler Tanner, Amy Wheeler and Renika Williams complete the strong cast attractively costumed by Mary Beth McLaughlin. Michael Amico’s expansive set, James Dunlap’s first-rate sound design and John Lavarnway’s properties are equally noteworthy aspects of this fine presentation.
“The Miracle Worker” continues through Sept. 30 in the Festival Playhouse of the Creative Arts Center at Wright State University, 3640 Col. Glenn Hwy., Fairborn. Performances are Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Act One: 80 minutes; Act Two: 50 minutes. Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for students and seniors. For tickets or more information, call (937) 775-2500.