By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Great casting makes great theater. For The Miracle Worker to work as well as it does in Dallas Children's Theater's current production, it's not enough just to find a young actress who can fling herself into the furniture portraying blind and deaf Helen Keller as a child. The role of Helen's teacher, Annie Sullivan, is equally crucial. The play is Annie's story as much as Helen's, and since she's the one doing the talking for both of them, she's pulling double duty almost every minute she's onstage.
King of the Road continues through February 17 at Undermain Theatre's Basement Space, 214-660-7731.
In Equity actress Trisha Miller-Smith, DCT director Robyn Flatt has cast a strong and lovely Annie Sullivan played as a gentle persuader with an iron will and an Irish lilt in her voice. Given some of the melodramatic flashbacks about a poorhouse and a dead brother that playwright William Gibson wove into his script, it would be easy for an actress to telegraph Annie's troubled soul. But Miller-Smith doesn't make Annie too sad or too heroic. She keeps her human, dropping her bravado for just a blink to show that she's as frightened and delicate as her young student.
In Pam Covington as Helen Keller, we see an actress more than capable of meeting the demands of one of American theater's great tours de force. Covington, a 15-year-old ninth-grader at The Hockaday School, has played leading roles at DCT before, most recently in The Secret Garden and To Kill a Mockingbird. As Helen, she holds nothing back, giving a performance that displays technical precision, total trust in her fellow actors and complete physical and emotional abandon.
Covington's Helen is a disabled child fighting desperately to join the world and to connect with a family that is blind to her needs and deaf to her pleas for attention. It's hard not to make comparisons but easy to see in this actress some of the young Patty Duke, who won an Oscar as Helen in the 1962 film version of The Miracle Worker, and Melissa Gilbert, who starred in a pretty good TV remake of the same play in the 1980s (with Duke playing Annie). Covington has a real future with this acting stuff, if she chooses to stick with it. (Audrey Gieseman, another young DCT veteran, plays Helen at some performances.)
Gibson's script, adapted for the 1959 Broadway production from his own 1957 teleplay, isn't great literature, but as an introduction for young audiences to the lives of two great American women, it's compelling enough to warrant DCT's once-a-decade revival (they last staged it in 1998). Every generation can find in it something to relate to and to be inspired by.
At the age of 20, Annie Sullivan graduated from a Baltimore school for the blind and in her first $25-a-month teaching assignment succeeded in breaking through little Helen's considerable communication barriers in only a few weeks. The two-act play, set in 1887 when Helen was just 7 years old, touches only on that first short chapter in their long relationship as teacher and student. With Annie's assistance, Helen went on to graduate from Radcliffe, the first deaf-blind person in America to receive a bachelor's degree. Helen wrote a dozen books and could read and write Braille in five languages. Until Annie's death in 1937, she and Helen toured the world with speaking engagements, the teacher translating in sign language every sentence spoken to Helen or that Helen wanted said to others.
Hints of how exhausting that job must have been are in The Miracle Worker. Until Annie's arrival at the Kellers' Tuscumbia, Alabama, home, Helen, according to the play, is treated as little more than a troublesome house pet. She is indulged and undisciplined, eating whatever she can grab off her family's plates and throwing temper tantrums when she's ignored. Her father, Captain Keller, a former Confederate soldier (played stoically by Neil Carpenter), regards her as a mental defective. Her mother, Kate (Anastasia Muñoz), refuses to institutionalize the girl, whose disabilities are the result of a bout of fever at the age of 19 months.
It's up to Annie to tame the feral Helen and gain her trust. In the play's pivotal 12-minute confrontation at the end of the first act, Annie and Helen reach their first breakthrough. Alone onstage, the two go round after round in a battle royal as Annie tries to make Helen sit, eat with a spoon and fold her napkin, simple rituals the Kellers have not had the patience to teach and don't believe she has the wherewithal to learn. Willful Helen fights Annie's attempts at control. Annie doesn't back down, slapping back as hard as Helen slaps her.
The actresses at Dallas Children's Theater must head home aching like prizefighters. The combat choreography by Eric Domuret may set some parameters for their moves, but it doesn't look like they're pulling back much on those slaps, punches and kicks. Food, dishes and chairs become weapons. Scenic designer Randel Wright's soaring multilevel set visually adds to the tension of watching Helen caroming blindly—the Kellers' open-walled house is mined with stairs and doorframes.
The second half of The Miracle Worker is set in the tiny cottage where Annie isolates Helen. There she spells out "doll" and "cake" again and again in the child's hand, trying to show the link between signs and objects. In the end, a splash of water will break the code.
That famous moment at the old-fashioned water pump on the edge of the stage is the big catharsis, of course, for characters, actors and audience. And it's all true. Gibson's play, approved by Helen, was derived from her own memories, including her realization with Annie that "wa-wa" was what she called water as a toddler. The pay-off in this climactic scene is not just Helen's new understanding of words, but her immediate expression of gratitude to Annie Sullivan for giving her a way to say them.
Good theater gives you something to be grateful for too. Here you get the story of Helen Keller's miraculous awakening, as well as the performances of two actresses who find a true bond with their roles and with each other.
Concocted by Posey and his cast, King of the Road lifts some names and story elements from Death of a Salesman but all comparisons to real art end there. Shades of an X-rated Pee-Wee's Playhouse give way to two hours of nonsensical scenes played out by inmates from the asylum for the criminally creepy.
Posey, a once-handsome actor who's starting to look like John Carradine as he lurches past middle age, plays Bill LaMans, demented, wig-wearing patriarch of a family that performs terrible vaudeville routines. Sons Bif and Hapi (Ben Bryant, Carrie Bourn) seem unaware that under their wigs and baggy pants one of them is a girl. Mom Linda (Walter Hardts) is a black man in a blue hairpiece and pink cocktail dress. Uncle Ben (Kevin Grammer), with various others, pops up on the giant video screen upstage to lip-sync (poorly) tunes from Pink Martini's Sympathique. Quel stale.
The most repeated line of dialogue is "Shut the fuck up!" You'll wish, like after the long ruminations on the "Franco-American War" and on the medical condition of Fidel Castro. Audience members are dragged onstage. Bad magic acts are performed. Actors harness themselves like human puppets and call each other "ass-wipes" and "cocksuckers."
Deep into the second act, as members of the audience begin tunneling out of Undermain's basement theater and up to Main Street to escape the horror, the cast mounts one last assault. One by one, actors bend over and pretend to shoot ping-pong balls from their hindquarters. No actual anuses are visible during the ejection of the little plastic orbs, but it hardly matters. They've pulled the whole show out of their asses, so this part of it hardly comes as a surprise.