‘The Miracle Worker’
Arkansas Repertory Theatre
March 20
Not miraculous
“The Miracle Worker,” winner of the Tony Award for Best Play in 1960, tells the story of the childhood years of blind and deaf Helen Keller, who with the help of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, begins the life-long struggle to overcome her disability.
This play, being performed through April 10 at the Rep, speaks to old and young alike. Keller’s iconic life was more a subject of the ’50s generation, and since her death in 1968 the memory of her has waned. But with the repeated performances of “Miracle” since its revival in 1988 and through a couple of television specials, continued generations have been allowed access to the legend of Keller’s spirit.
Local actress Mary Katelin Ward plays a wiry and isolated Helen Keller, and although Ward is only a child herself, “Miracle” counts as her sixth Rep performance. Annie Sullivan (Margot Ebling) is hired by Helen’s parents as a last resort, and although half-blind herself, Annie now has the chance with Helen to resurrect herself from a dark past.
On top of exploring the emotional struggles of its central character, however, the play attempts to show the repercussions of Helen’s triumphs by forcing everyone around her to realize their own personal emotional disabilities. Everyone suddenly has their own obstacles that threaten their “immortal souls” in order to succeed in a sappy, tear-jerker ending.
“Miracle” turns the life of a truly inspirational woman into some puerile Lifetime television special. Although the subject matter is already stuffed full of meaning, playwright William Gibson must have felt compelled to “make it his own,” and in the process strips half of what is meaningful about the Helen Keller story in the first place.
Case in point: Throughout the play, Annie has periodic episodes of her dead brother Jimmie calling out to her from the grave, which she hears with pangs of conscience. Not only are the scenes themselves ridiculous, but they completely misdirect the focus of the play’s central dynamic between Annie and Helen — and not anyone else.
So even when actor Mike O’Carroll (Capt. Keller, Helen’s father) has a few moments of impressive stage presence, or Mike Nichol’s set design gives the play its much-needed versatility, the script has little to offer to support the hard work of its cast and stagehands.
Helen Keller is worth remembering, yes. But this play is not.
— By Dustin Allen
‘The Tender Land’
UALR Theatre
March 19
Joyful voices
Opera lovers take note. In a remarkably short period of time, Leigh Holman, director of the UALR Opera Theatre Workshop, has built opera into a student activity worthy of broad community support.
The latest case in point was the workshop’s presentation of Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land,” inspired by the James Agee/Walker Evans account of the hard life of Southern tenant farmers, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
The show was handsomely staged, in set and costume. Student performers ranged from perfectly acceptable to exciting. Guest artist Timothy Tucker, a professional baritone and faculty member at Philander Smith College, was a huge but not overpowering voice as the grandfather of a struggling farm family. Many students deserve mention, most of all Dominique Holloway, who brought a buttery sweet, perfectly pitched voice to the role of the headstrong granddaughter who falls in love with an itinerant laborer.
Copland’s music is difficult at times, with sharp shifts in tone and meter. There’s little of the tunefulness and smashing overtures of the familiar classic operas, though a rollicking graduation night dance was an exception. Still, the hard music — and the occasional mournful fiddle — somehow seemed appropriate to the hardscrabble setting, as did Copland’s familiar play with folk and spiritual themes. The “orchestra” was Stratsimir Pavlov on keyboards, working precisely with conductor Bevan Keating.
— By Max Brantley