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Two current Duluth productions epitomize the power of theater. “The Miracle Worker”, presented by UMD Theatre and staged on campus at the Marshall Performing Arts Center, winds up its two weekend run this Saturday. Showtime is 7:30 PM.
I expected to find this play schmaltzy but instead found it riveting. It’s a chronicle of a week or so in the lives of the Kellers, a family living in northern Alabama in the 1880’s. They have contracted with a young woman, Annie Sullivan, to try to teach their six-year-old daughter, Helen, who’s been deaf and blind from the age of nineteen months.
UMD Visiting Professor and Director, Lee Gundersheimer, has evoked amazing performances from his talented cast. That an adult can so believably portray a six year old astonishes me. Chelsea Reller IS the pampered, pretty, volatile child, Helen. Nothing clues us that Reller’s a university sophomore. Young Helen is prone to hardcore tantrums, overturning tables, throwing food and silverware, punching folks in the guts.
Her journalist Papa, played by Freshman Joshua Stenvick, is as thoroughly convincing as Reller. He’s the man, big and blunt-spoken. Helen is his darling, but he feels driven to put her into an institution. Mama Kate (Megan Potter) loves, coddles and gives in to her girl.
In comes Annie Sullivan (Kate Zehr), just graduated from a school for the blind herself. With formidable tenacity, she attempts to teach little Helen self-discipline, as well as a coded language, transferred from her hands to Helen’s palms. That she soon achieves success makes for history.
Playwright, William Gibson, also known for “Two For the Seesaw”, stops his story here. But Annie accompanied Helen into life, eventually seeing her graduate from Radcliffe. When I was a kid, there was a pall around Helen’s story, perhaps because the tale of her magnificent life overcoming huge disabilities and going on to advocate for the blind, was only a fraction of the truth.
Keller was also a radical: a pacifist, opposing Woodrow Wilson’s entry into WWI; a suffragist and supporter of birth control; a radical socialist. At age 40, she helped found the ACLU. Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain were friends.
Keller was a member of the Socialist Party, and even earlier, supported the Industrial Workers of the World. Her activism stemmed from research into the causes of blindness and other disabilities. When she discovered that those conditions were often traceable to harmful work environments based on employer greed, and due to poverty, her life was changed forever. Journalists who had formerly had nothing but good to say about her, began to attribute her radicalism to her physical deficits.
In the 1950’s, Gibson’s work was first presented on TV. It was during the Red Scare, and sure enough, much about Helen Keller’s life was ominously submerged. UMD’s “The Miracle Worker” is magnificent; so was Helen Keller’s life in its entirety.
The second play, Renegade Theater’s “Spring Awakening”, runs at Teatro Zuccone, Thursday through Saturday till February 25, at 8pm. Also about children who lived at the end of the 19th Century, this work by radical German dramatist, Frank Wedekind, was banned at the time. It’s a terrific, compelling show with daring, provocative acting. Find a full review in next week’s Reader.