Review: The Miracle Worker

The Vancouver Playhouse opens its 2009/2010 season with The Miracle Worker, in what Artistic Director Max Reimer has characterized as a season celebrating the triumphs of the human spirit.  And while The Miracle Worker indeed fits that bill, the real triumph here is the cast, led by Anna Cummer and Margot Berner.

Anna Cummer as Annie and Margot Berner as Helen Keller in the Vancouver Playhouse production of The Miracle WorkerI must admit that images of a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” movie-of-the-week ran through my head when I first heard that the Playhouse was going to launch their new season with The Miracle Worker.  You know, those cloyingly sweet tube treats where the goal is to get you reaching for your Kleenex and ultimately leaves you feeling guilty from all those empty tv calories.

Thankfully though, despite the very real danger of wallowing in the treacle, this Playhouse production is not allowed to be pulled into depths of emotional manipulation (well, okay maybe just a little) due primarily to some great performances helped by Director Meg Roe.

Cummer gives Annie, Helen’s teacher, such a level of hope and enthusiasm for the possibilities that exist for Helen that even when we know what the ending brings, we still find ourselves rooting her on.

Margot Berner as Helen does a good job with her role as well.  Just the thought of any actor trying to play a deaf and blind girl with flailing arms, stumbling across the stage scene after scene is enough to make you cringe.  Fortunately,  Berner rises above what could easily have been a caricature, due in no small part I am sure to Director Meg Roe who herself has had a couple spins at playing disabilities.  (Berner shares the role of Helen with Emma Grabinsky on alternating nights).

Tom Butler and Jennifer Clement as Helen’s parents also provide solid performances.  Clement does a particularly good job of the conflicted mother wanting more for her daughter and willing to go through the heart-ache necessary to achieve that goal.  Ryan Beil, as the opinionated son who isn’t allowed to have an opinion, also provides a fine performance as his character builds to the final crescendo in a showdown with his father.

Director Roe’s experience as an actor playing someone with a disability (most recently as the developmentally challenged young woman in last year’s Toronto, Mississippi), has definitely given her the knowledge to help ensure the characterization of Helen stays truthful.  Her decision to cut some of the smaller roles was also a good one and allowed the focus to be on the relationship between Keller, Annie and the family.

Apparently Roe and Set Designer Allan Stitchbury were purposeful in the creation of their minimalist set where nothing exists unless it is being used, much like nothing exists for Helen unless she can feel it (since I did not take note if this was actually achieved I’ll have to take their word for it).

But I must admit to being a little confused by some of the set elements and even after reading Director Roe’s notes in the Playbill I still don’t quite get it although I suppose it does illicit some sense of isolation and loneliness.  The use of the stage turntable did allow for a fluidity in scene changes that definitely helped with the pacing (as did Roe’s cuts resulting in two acts rather than the original three).

John Webber’s lighting design worked well and Sheila White once again proves herself as the consummate Costume Designer although I was a little disappointed there was not much variety.

In the end what could have easily been schmaltz is touching, powerful and ultimately triumphant.  And indeed this is a great show to begin Reimer’s celebration.

4 out of 5 StarsThe Miracle Worker
Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company

Vancouver Playhouse
10 – 31 October 2009

Tickets can be reserved by calling the Playhouse Box Office at 604 873 3311, on line at http://www.vancouverplayhouse.com or in person at the Playhouse Production Centre, 127 East 2nd Avenue.

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