Sound of silence 

Montana Rep's The Miracle Worker hits the right notes

What the Montana Repertory Theatre has over all the other theaters in town is time. In its material, the company leans toward the established, tried-and-true fixtures, works that if not called “timeless” are considered enduring. They have been around long enough to carry the social appeal of philosophy, humanity or principle, and the sentimental resonance associated with their filmed versions.

The time that’s really important to MRT, however, is time on the road, and Missoula benefits by getting a show weeks into its run, honed, tested, felt out. The cast knows exactly where the audience will sigh or rustle, the actors fall into the perfect trance of communicating on stage, and the sets, by virtue of their need to travel, are slim, compact and beautifully suggestive.

With all of this in mind, welcome The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s play based on the experience of Helen Keller and her girlhood teacher Annie Sullivan. The play, which opened at the UM Montana Theatre on Feb. 11 and runs through Sunday, Feb. 23 before it hits the road once more, is directed by Michael Murphy. Like MRT’s plays of recent seasons, such as It’s a Wonderful Life and To Kill A Mockingbird, the material is really beyond review or judgement of any kind—solid, presentable theater suitable for grandmothers and grade-schoolers alike.

Primary responsibility for the success of this show rests with the young actor playing Helen, a character expressed in grunts and fits, howls and hands. She cannot speak, but she can make sound; she cannot see but she will prowl the stage. Helen is also, as we know, a child—that dreaded mascot of the family show. Child actors suffer too often from the wishes of their anxious parents and controlling directors, and, as W.C. Fields warned, they upstage everything. The child playing Helen must overcome the very condition of her being to be any good.

Jordan Watson handles this role more than capably. Murphy has directed her with sensitivity and good suggestion, and she is surrounded on stage by her real family in Bill Watson as Mr. Keller, Nancy Watson as Mrs. Keller and sister Bonnie as Martha (all of them rich and beautiful actors). Holding this play together, Jordan Watson exhibits the actor’s invaluable combination of understatement and intuition. She is fascinating to watch and even W.C. Fields would have granted her respect.

Both the cast and director recognize that the true power in The Miracle Worker comes not in the talk and speeches, but in the silence. Silence is a powerful language, one we don’t often attend, and quite naturally it is an enormous subject of The Miracle Worker, leading the audience down Helen’s road, into her isolation. Murphy lets silence happen. He uses long spaces without words, sometimes even with very little movement, and we can focus on Helen in her body. This also provides an instructive contrast with the pursuit of language so critical to Miss Sullivan.

Kate Czajkowski plays Helen’s teacher, and her tidy form and strong voice make her not only Helen’s foil but her other half. In Denise Massman’s costumes, Helen is baggy and loose and disheveled, a hodge-podge of cotton layers. Annie is smooth, neat and womanly, authoritative and institutional in dark colors and collars. Czajkowski strikes the perfect note of pride and sacrifice, hinting at bottomless fear, the world around her as strange and unforgiving as Helen’s.

The most powerful scene comes in a collision of the two indomitable wills of teacher and pupil, woman and girl. Having tried to teach Helen manners with only the girl’s tantrum to show for it, Annie banishes the horrified family from the dining room and bolts the doors. She seizes Helen bodily and begins to force obedience from her, their struggle lasting into exhaustion. The actors are choreographed around the chairs, spoons and napkins with violent, silent precision, and the great strength of their collective spirits rises up and washes over the audience, bodies speaking emotion as in dance.

Early on in this show, it becomes clear that all the design, production and interpretive elements of a play spark here with whatever alchemy makes theater theater. Mike Monsos has designed a house for Helen that is little more than a frame, the walls dangerously absent. The big, open nothingness beyond their edges illustrates Helen’s sense of not knowing, not seeing. Within these invisible spaces, Monsos has laid out the bedroom and dining room with plenty of objects and accessories, chairs, tables, bed frames—all the tangible limits of Helen’s world, and Jordan Watson turns these articles into obstacles without ever hamming it up.

MRT’s Miracle Worker would not be what it is without the presence of the two interpreters, and a review of the show would be remiss without commenting on their mighty grace and power. Libby Traynor-Torgerson and Ondine Barnt stand steady at the actors’ elbows, always within reach yet just beyond crowding. Together they sign every role in the play, and their signing is still another lesson in the physical possibilities of communication. They are present, impassioned voices of energy and emotion, adopting entire spectrums of feeling from one character then switching magically into another equally distinct range. The interpreters are another way into the play’s central character, the little girl who is at first assaulted and at last adored by her teacher’s tireless attention to the world she holds in her hand.

The Miracle Worker runs through Sunday, Feb. 23 at the Montana Theatre in the UM PAR/TV Building. Please see calendar in this issue for show times and ticket prices.

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