The Miracle Worker by William Gibson
Performance length: about 2 and ½ hrs. with an intermission
SET DESIGN: Hard
COSTUME DESIGN: Easy
CAST POTENTIAL: Never mind the challenge of portraying two visually impaired people, your cast will relish the opportunity of playing the psychological depth of each of these well-crafted characters. The play is rich with internal conflict, established through complex relationships forged by Gibson.
CROWD REACTION: Given the familiarity of the story and main character, and the success of the 1962 film, audiences are indelibly drawn to the mystery and miracle behind Helen Keller’s advent into language.
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SUMMARY: Through severe medical affliction, Helen Keller has been stricken deaf and blind at a young age. Her parents are helplessly at odds with young Helen, who lacks the language and manners to function civilly. Therefore, she is often subject to wild tantrums. Annie Sullivan (who Mark Twain later dubbed “a miracle worker”) is sent to work as Helen’s governess.
After living a life in a derelict asylum and partially blind herself, Annie has no sympathy for Helen. The two have a battle of wills, often violent, as Annie tries to restore structure to Helen’s life. Her main goal, however, is not to teach Helen how to behave, but to teach Helen language, “just one word,” and it is here that Annie must fight for/against the Kellers, Helen, and herself.
CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: The play is an appropriate choice of a cast of high school aged actors for a number of reasons: first, many of the primary characters are younger (i.e. Helen, Annie, James, and Kate); therefore, teenagers have the capacity to play characters in their age-range. Plus, this play requires the intimacy found in most high school drama departments. After all, The Miracle Worker is one of the most physical scripts in the market: actors grab, kiss, spit, and slap each other throughout. A cast that knows each other well could be a huge advantage.
However, the script poses problems, too. The biggest task in Gibson’s biographical drama is for the lead actress who must portray a young Helen Keller. Let alone the difficulty of playing a young, obstinate child; never mind the challenge of playing someone deaf and blind; the actress must also attempt to portray someone without the capacity of language. This leads to massive frustration and anguish, the fuel that flames most of Helen’s wild behavior. It is also very difficult to portray characters with physical disabilities, especially those as severe as Helen’s, realistically. Any performance that verges beyond the audience’s expectations of the disability can be interpreted, at best, as awkward and, at worst, as insulting.
Though, the story and conflict in The Miracle Worker move beyond physical disabilities. It is a human drama, filled with the angst, anger and fear found in dealing with other people. The cast should focus on the conflicts that reside between each of the characters more than an accurate portrayal of a deaf and blind girl. If the audience believes the conflict, they will trust implicitly the performance.
SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: Gibson takes great pains describing his vision for the set, which consists of two playing spaces: one the Keller’s house and the other everywhere else. Some challenging scene changes exist. At one point, the Keller household must become their neighboring garden cottage. Gibson does well to illustrate how these scene changes should work in his script.
But it’s important to note that the latest Broadway production was criticized for lacking focus, mostly because of poor set and lighting design. Gibson wants to create a picture across the entire stage, even when the play’s action only occurs on one side. This mise-en-scene is thematically important because Gibson wishes to show how each of the characters are dramatically affected by the action, even when it doesn’t directly involve them. Try to balance focus while painting a vast picture.
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: This is an incredibly powerful script for a variety of reasons: first, it is simply good playwriting. The play’s text is unpredictable, funny, engaging, and heartbreaking. Second, it is important. Helen Keller’s life is a miracle, a testament to the power of human will and grace. And finally, it asks a lot of great questions: what is the mind without language? What is the fine line between tough love and tragic abuse (Annie literally hits Helen, after all)? How would we, as individuals, fare in the situation presented on stage? The Miracle Worker allows us to be inspired by these questions by living through them on stage.