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It was in the late ’50s that playwright William Gibson first went rummaging through the psyche of teacher Annie Sullivan, the near-blind orphan-made-good who famously led Helen Keller in from the dark and the silence, and that decade’s imprint comes through in both the rhythms and the upbeat, together-we’ll-come-through attitude of The Miracle Worker. It is, in short, a chestnut of a play.
Jim Petosa’s production is both a sentimental nod of sorts to the one he directed 13 years ago at the Olney Theatre Center’s comfy old barn of a performance space and the stylish inaugural outing in the company’s satisfyingly sophisticated new house. And once it gets its emotional energies together—midway through—well, it actually manages to be pretty moving. Who’da thunk?
There’s a deliberately epic air about this new staging, with moodily metaphorical work from the design team setting the tone. Pei Lee’s costumes are variations on a somber theme, Daniel MacLean Wagner lights scenes with the textures and the palettes of swamp and rain forest, and David McKeever scores the transitions between them with a constant melancholy threnody. And the anchors of James Kronzer’s set—a monumental door dominating a steep ramp at the back of the stage, a central playing platform polished to a high shine, and an enormous window frame suspended above it all—manage to suggest both restrictions and possibilities. As for the shuttered windows that keep flying in and out, and the towering metal-and-glass screens that track back and forth from the wings—well, yes, Helen and Annie do both battle with their limits, don’t they, as through a glass darkly and all?
Performances are solid all around—even a trifle too solid, in the case of Marybeth Wise, who initially makes rather more of Annie’s bluff Irishness than would seem necessary. She softens the portrait, though, as the evening goes on, coming wholly into the character by the time Gibson gives her that notorious speech about life as an orphan in a grim asylum: “We played with the rats because we didn’t have any toys,” goes the famously over-the-top line, and to her credit, Wise almost makes it work.
Carolyn Pasquantonio does admirably coherent work with the entirely nonverbal part of Helen Keller, who first appears as an all-but-feral 7-year-old, cut off from the world and indulged by pitying parents. James Slaughter, as her aging-Confederate father, is at his most relaxed and agreeable, and Helen Hedman creates the requisite warmth as her mother.
Petosa’s reading shortchanges the subplot that tracks the turbulent relationship between Slaughter’s Captain Keller and his son, James (Max Rosenak), who learns from Annie how to stand up to the old man. It may be Rosenak’s basically bland performance; it may be that Slaughter’s a trifle too relaxed and agreeable for the play’s family dynamics to truly crackle.
Still, late in the evening, when the breakthrough Annie has been pushing Helen toward finally happens, when an angry, uncomprehending girl discovers the liberating power of language in the touch of water from that famous pump, Petosa & Co. conjure an unmistakable thing: that shivery, soul-stirring moment, that instant of life distilled by art into something achingly, beautifully, unbearably true. It’s a fine cap for the play, and a fine start for the space.
Something ominous is happening in Washington: People who may not be who they say they are have been trading accusations and insinuations, and it’s looking more and more like some shadowy Mr. Big is pulling strings behind the scenes. Don’t expect a definitive revelation about who or why, though—Mac Wellman’s entertainingly odd Energumen doesn’t care whether you side with the deprogrammer who thinks the cult leader’s been snookered by the lobbyist’s daughter or decide the Frenchman is secretly a mysteriously influential ex-cabbie from Detroit.
Neither does Kathleen Akerley, who’s directed Longacre Lea’s confidently strange (or do I mean “strangely confident”?) production. But then one measure of success, with a head-scratcher like Wellman’s uncommonly lyrical satire, isn’t whether the narrative ultimately makes sense but whether the characters do, and Akerley’s cast manages to make each improbable individual seem, well, improbably individual—and genuinely invested in the fragmented bits of oddness that swirl around them all, forming what seem tantalizingly like patterns.
Hard-boiled Hugh T. Owen is hard-luck Sam, one of a pair of deprogrammers-for-hire who take on a case involving the daughter of an influential Washingtonian (wary, weary Jonathan Church). She’s fallen in with the acolytes of the Master of Many Perfections (an unnervingly centered Carlos Bustamante), who appears to be a fairly shameless hybrid of Tony Robbins and Deepak Chopra.
Except that nothing’s quite as it appears: Sam and the Master seem to have something of a past, and that errant daughter (quirkily carnivorous Melissa-Leigh Douglass), who seems to be taking acting lessons from either a mysterious Frenchman pretending to be a redneck senator (Michael Glenn) or a redneck senator pretending to be a mysterious Frenchman (Michael Glenn) or someone else entirely alternately pretending to be both (Michael Glenn, deadpan hilarious no matter what he’s doing), may be playing her guru for a sucker. As stories tangle and identities blur, lives and even language begin to come undone—and what’s most unlikely about Longacre Lea’s production is how much you’ll be troubled by the fragmentation.
One clue: Wellman was writing in the day of Reaganomics, and the definition of “energumen” that Sam offers up in an early scene (“It signifies both the possessed person proper and the demonic agent”) isn’t the only sense of the word. It can also be taken to mean “fanatic.” And one thing to chuckle over, however ruefully: Wellman—this was 1985, remember, two years after “Evil Empire”—specifies that that trio of sinister singing Santas (don’t ask) be heard rehearsing an off-key version of the “Internationale.” Akerley has ’em hrrrming haltingly through the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is a pointedly different comment on the demagoguery of the day, now ain’t it?
If Energumen sounds like a lot of highfalutin one-act to swallow, fear not: The palate-cleanser, after intermission, is a chipper clip through Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, a parody of the hoary whodunit with critical descant. The same actors appear, ostensibly to perform a murder mystery called The Inspector Crawls; the real action, though, is on the aisle, where two thoroughly maddening newspaper reviewers (Glenn again, along with Jason Stiles) natter endlessly to each other about their motivations, their reputations, their aspirations, and their interpretations of a play that pretty transparently can’t support any. It’s a charmingly malicious entertainment, suggesting delightfully and rather devastatingly that critics generally know jack shit. Coming after the opaqueries of Energumen, it’s practically an invitation to squabble with your seatmates about what you’ve just been watching. CP