Visiting Yellow Tree Theatre has become a tradition for me and my friend Abby. When the theatre premiered it’s brand new Young & Free program for patrons 25 years old and younger, we both signed up, and now receive two free tickets each for select performances. Not that we would need free tickets to entice us to sit in the coziest coffee-shop-like of lobbies, enjoy the colorful quirkiness of the space itself, and rest in the unfailingly hopeful and sweetly-honest shows that Yellow Tree Theatre produces four times a year. This month’s storytelling gift, The Miracle Worker, was no exception.
Darkness to Light
I had never seen this classic piece before, but I was respectably familiar with the story of Helen Keller, of her teacher Annie Sullivan, and of her fascinating life’s testimony to the value of each human life, no matter it’s disabilities or setbacks. William Gibson’s play focuses on the crucial month-or-so long period in Helen’s life when she went from darkness and silence to finally being able to communicate with the outside world. It takes place in the Antebellum South, at a time where most individuals with life-changing disabilities were simply put away in institutions, presumably for their own good, but perhaps out of the understandable, yet terribly misplaced better judgment of family members and caretakers who had exhausted the limited treatment methods of their time. It was a period in our history where identity was fixed and one’s voice was almost completely bound up in that identity.
Yellow Tree’s rendition of The Miracle Worker, directed by Patrick Coyle, is an excellent, clear-cut introduction to this important story, including fascinating updates to the intelligent but slightly cliché-spotted text.
In the first and last and all the most important places, the Catie Bair’s Helen was stunning. Whether sitting quietly to the side, sustaining a raging tantrum, or even exiting the stage in a blackout, she was a powerfully understated presence; respectfully and honestly portraying Helen and easily carrying the momentum of every scene with deeply mature intelligence and grace.
Her foil and teacher, Annie Sullivan, was played with fire by Kiara Jackson. Her depiction of Annie’s stubbornness was relatable and endearing, and her blunt delivery of one-liners was spot on and hilarious.
Together, these two actresses worked as a seamless unit. Their dialogue-less dinner scene built at an excellent pace and the silence of it was broken constantly by the genuine gasps of laughter and surprise from the audience. Their scene work was a phenomenal example of listening and trust, much like that of the characters they embodied.
The Freedom to Speak and Be Heard
The secondary narrative in The Miracle Worker, the relationship between Helen’s loving but frustrating father, Captain Keller (a winningly charming Casey E. Lewis), her mother Kate (the darling and heartbreaking Jane Froiland), and her step brother James (played with delightful comedic simplicity by Lukas Levin) was my favorite story of the show.
Captain Keller’s choice to hear the voices of his children, or more often, to ignore them, clearly silenced both Helen and James more than any disabilities or developmental ages could have. The gradual transformation of each of these three characters, and Kate and James’ eventual discovery of their own freedom to speak, gently but powerfully paralleled Helen’s breakthrough.
A Parting Gift
On our way out of the theatre, my friend Abby and I met “Larry” and “Tera,” a couple of faithful Yellow Tree Theatre-goers. We chatted with them a bit after the show, parted ways, and then bumped into them again in the parking lot. After a conversation that included a hearty recommendation that we see Yellow Tree’s Christmas play, Miracle on Christmas Lake, we hugged our new friends goodbye, and then lingered in the lot a bit longer, not yet willing to drive away from the delicious contentment and hope that every single Yellow Tree production presses amicably into your hands.
There is a scene where the sickening poverty and neglect of the “institution” that Annie grew up in is described in great detail, including references to prostitution, death, and STD’s. The scene is brief, but moving. As a whole, Helen’s transformation is exciting and engaging, and I would say that any child around the age of ten or older would gain a lot from seeing this production.