Imagine living in a world of silence and without landscape. The only thing that connects you with everyone else is touch, smell and emotion. Southern Appalachian Repertory Theatre’s immensely satisfying production of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson is on stage through Sunday, Aug. 4.
Fresh out of school, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan (played by Amanda Ladd) comes highly recommended as a tutor for the Keller family’s daughter Helen (Sarah Laughland). Stricken with scarlet fever as a baby, Helen grew up deaf and blind. Upon Annie’s arrival, there is immediate apprehension as she implements lessons of spelling letters into Helen’s hand. It doesn’t take long for the teacher to realize she’s facing the challenge of a very smart but spoiled student who is resistant at every turn. Can Annie reach Helen on a deeper level before her family intervenes with their coddling ways?
This production brings out two riveting performances in Ladd and Laughland. Both actresses shake up the familiarity we associate with the iconic, Oscar-winning depictions by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. Director Jessica West’s casting makes all the difference.
Ladd is especially impressive. In a wit-filled portrayal, she commands the stage. Ladd is pulling something from within. Her streaming tears prove that every moment is based in reality. When a performer finds a way to personally relate to the depth of a role, we witness acting in its truest form.
Similarly, Laughland goes the distance. She is thrillingly bold with her interpretation while managing to make her expressions and mannerisms believable. Because of such powerful performances, there’s a genuine awakening in both these characters.
The famed breakfast scene where Annie literally fights Helen to break her control over obedience is very well staged. A woman in the audience gasped in horror over the severity of discipline Annie enforces while others laughed with understanding. This brings to debate the different techniques of raising children. Regardless of stance, the scene is challenging — in the best of ways — for the actors to perform as well as for the audience to watch.
Generally speaking, the other characters in this play only help advance Annie and Helen’s true story. However, there’s a beautiful supporting performance that deserves major acclaim. As the Kellers’ son James, Calum Kramer needs very little dialogue to show an internal torment. He’s incredibly touching. Hopefully, he’ll appear in much larger roles in the future. Randy Noojin as the stoic and bullheaded Captain Keller perfectly reacts with Kramer and creates a notable turning point in their relationship.
Other minor characters, usually used to nuance Gibson’s play, were missing altogether. Such artistic liberties made the focus more on the family. However, the omission of the haunting ghost of Annie’s ill-fated brother Jimmy was a missed opportunity. Because Jimmy couldn’t be saved from the asylum, a continued visual would have enhanced the reasoning behind Annie’s persistence with Helen, as asylums were where misunderstood deaf and blind people were once sent. Regardless, Ladd’s rendering of this monologue was heartbreaking.
The importance of deaf and blind culture is kept in the spotlight with The Miracle Worker, and this moving and unexpectedly funny production deserves to be a hit for SART.
WHAT: The Miracle Worker
WHERE: 44 College St., Mars Hill, sartplays.com
WHEN: Through Sunday, Aug. 4. Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. $25-$30