Nearing its half-century mark, “The Miracle Worker” still resonates as a powerful historical document of a teacher’s heroic struggle to conquer the demonized void that consumes the blind, deaf and mute world of the young Helen Keller. William Gibson’s emotionally charged 1959 drama is given a profoundly rewarding revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
Annika Boras brings fierce determination and true grit to the role of the half-blind Boston Irish teacher, Annie Sullivan. There is a studied balance of dignity and grace in her performance along with a burning sense of raw urgency. The drama’s pivotal scene is the stormy combat between teacher and student at the dinner table, during which Helen is taught to eat with utensils rather than her fingers. Staged as a battle royal by fight director J. Steven White, this is a victorious ballet acted out with considerable fury.
At the opening night perf, the role of the young Helen was performed by fifth grader Meredith Lipson (who alternates with Lily Maketansky). Lipson offers a portrait of sullen and explosive mood changes as the impenetrable seven-year-old child. Arms raised, she wanders from room to room and person to person like a confused house pet until the determined teacher brings an awareness of reality in the pivotal water pump scene.
Sturdy support is offered by John Hickok’s short-tempered Captain Keller, Emily Dorsch as the cautiously uncertain Kate Keller and Will Fowler as Helen’s harshly cynical half-brother.
Susan Fenichell’s perceptive staging allows the audience to eavesdrop into a private world. David Zinn’s expansive set reveals several functional locales accented by Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design, which illustrates fuzzy images of Sullivan’s own troubled past. Zinn also designed the spot-on, muted period costumes.