Eye opener 

Montana Rep's Miracle Worker grips the senses

You know you've made an impact on the world when there's an entire category of jokes about you. According to the internet, Helen Keller jokes (most of them pretty stupid) number in the hundreds. I've wasted the last hour trying to research the origin of the Helen Keller joke without any luck. That's how I know a performance has impacted me—when I can't stop obsessing over ridiculous peripheral aspects to its story.

Every year Montana Repertory Theatre takes a show on the road, and its first stop is Missoula. This year's tour is William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, a late 1950s classic about deaf and blind child Helen Keller and her precocious young tutor, Annie Sullivan.

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  • Caitlin McRae, left, and Hannah Appell star in Montana Rep’s The Miracle Worker.

Having never seen The Miracle Worker or its 1962 film adaptation starring Patty Duke, I expected something vaguely Hallmark Channel, where education and love would triumph over disability. But the centerpiece of this story is neither the mind nor the heart. The Miracle Worker is about will and people's struggle in the face of impossible frustration. Sullivan, once blind herself, moves in with the Kellers to try and deal with their nearly feral child, Helen. Everyone is frustrated and all wills are in conflict. Sullivan's task is less teaching than restraining; the emotions are raw and animalistic, and they stir below the mediating power of language.

As usual, the Rep matches up equity actors with University of Montana students, and they all perform so professionally that it's hard to tell them apart. Caitlin McRae, as Sullivan, struggles between her fiery personality and her position as a servant in someone's home. Hannah Appell inhabits Helen Keller with an eerie and ghostlike presence that's only disrupted when she explodes into tantrums. Nick Pavelich plays Helen's brother, James Keller, as wry and hilarious and stiffly on point. Equity actor and UM graduate Lily Gladstone plays Helen's mother, Kate, emoting every subtle shade of maternal anxiety and gentle obstinacy. And equity actor Jim Gall gives a commanding voice and aura of authenticity to Helen's father, Captain Arthur Keller. It's kind of a dream cast, really.

Though supporting actors Hugh Bickley, Sarina Hart and Therese Diekhans never take much of the spotlight, all three perform exceptionally. One of the most fascinating directorial choices for the production has Hart and Diekhans engaged in continuous background activity peripheral to the main action, which adds another layer to the story and maintains the show's realism.

One thing I've come to expect from the Rep is brilliant staging that refuses to rely on glitz or spectacle. In this case it was also simple and effective: some furniture, a water pump, a dollhouse. The costuming is understated and convincing.

At times, the video projection backdrops integrate nicely into the unity of the piece, but if anything interferes with this production it has to be the extraneous multimedia. More often than not video distracts from the action on stage without adding much to the show's vision. Most disappointing are the projections that magnify close-up action on stage, such as Sullivan's attempts to teach Helen sign language. These shots pull focus off the actors and intrude on an otherwise natural and imaginative engagement with the scene. It's particularly grating in a show that asks us to empathize with a sense-impaired character. Instead of giving us more visual stimulation, what we can't see and therefore must imagine would be a more appropriate invitation to connect.

In the climactic "Breakfast Scene," where Sullivan and Helen clash with brutal physicality, director Bernadette Sweeney takes a surprisingly restrained approach, playing the scene in a stop-and-go fashion. The action intensifies through brief tableaus. A pulsing heartbeat accompanies the stillness, along with McRae's ragged breath. It's gripping stuff, though I found myself wishing the heartbeat had been 10 times louder. I wanted to feel it in my skin. I wanted to know that I'd be aware of it even if I was deaf myself.

The Miracle Worker keeps a steady rhythm of tension and release until its ebullient conclusion. Rapid and furious, it tumbles to a breaking point. Connections made within the characters shrapnel toward the audience with an impressive combination of rawness and precision. And when Appell's only smile finally breaks it's nearly impossible not to transform along with her.

At intermission, local screen and stage writer Roger Hedden told me, "If you cry at the end you know they did it right."

They did it right.

Montana Rep's The Miracle Worker continues at the Montana Theatre in UM's PARTV Center Thu., Jan. 30, Fri., Jan. 31, Sat., Feb. 1, Thu., Feb. 6 and Sat., Feb. 8, at 7:30 PM nightly, with a Sat. Feb. 1 matinee at 2 PM. $20.

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