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You could say Shira Grabelsky stands about 3-and-a-half feet tall at Arena Stage—that is, if she ever remained still enough to warrant the use of the verb “stands.” Instead, you pretty much have to say that while playing a hell-raising 6-year-old in The Miracle Worker, Grabelsky sprints, stomps, careens, plunges, scuttles, scoots, scurries, and dashes about 3-and-a-half feet tall.
She also breaks the audience’s collective heart. As Helen Keller, the 19th century’s most celebrated deaf, dumb, and blind kid, she’s strong, stubborn, reckless, uproarious, and breathtakingly persuasive. Read her bio and you’ll discover that the 20-something Grabelsky is a student at George Washington University and a seasoned performer with credits ranging from Sesame Street to the American Sign Language Traveling Minstrels. Watch her, though, and you’ll swear she’s not acting at all. Her concentration is fierce, her smile beatific, her temper implacable. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a performance with more conviction and verisimilitude powering it.
This pint-size powerhouse is the linchpin in an ambitious attempt to reconceive William Gibson’s reassuring middlebrow drama—about the tumultuous first weeks of Helen Keller’s lifelong relationship with her teacher, Annie Sullivan—in a freshly inclusive, populist manner. To dispel memories of earlier stage versions and of the 1962 movie, director Nick Olcott has dispensed with naturalism almost entirely, practiced the most colorblind casting this side of Star Trek, and placed eight ASL-signing “witnesses” on stage as a sort of deaf chorus.
Sounds overconceptualized, I know. Still, by emphasizing theatrical form even as he’s picking patrons’ emotional pockets, Olcott mostly manages to make a shamelessly sentimental ’50s vehicle palatable for our more cynical age. The play is still effective in the usual way, with Helen’s every victory and setback tugging at heartstrings. You just feel less like a sap for letting the tears flow.
The Miracle Worker recounts how an infant Helen Keller lost her sight and hearing to illness—and how her family then lost its equilibrium while trying to care for her. Unable to communicate in more than rudimentary fashion, Helen is a barely domesticated wild child when she first appears on stage. Willful and destructive, she’s pampered and bribed with bits of food by her adoring mother (elegantly down-to-earth Samarra Mbenga), indulged by her father (blustery Fred Grandy), and tolerated by her brother (John Kim, all post-adolescent posturing) and the household servants.
But with the Keller home in a perpetual uproar—Olcott over-choreographs the mayhem, creating a few too many traffic jams on Tony Cisek’s stylized flooring—some sort of change is clearly required. Locking the tot up in a mental institution strikes everyone as drastic, so 20-year-old Annie Sullivan (Kelly C. McAndrew), who was herself blind until a series of operations restored her sight, is hired as a tutor. The rest of the play deals with Annie’s tough-love approach to breaking through the cocoon of silence and darkness that envelops Helen.
In most productions, Helen is depicted as an adolescent during these sequences, though in real life she was only 6 when Annie came to tutor her. Because no 6-year-old has ever had the acting chops to carry a production eight times a week, directors generally cast a more experienced actress and settle for making her look as young as possible. Patty Duke was 12 when she originated the part opposite Anne Bancroft on Broadway, and she looked perhaps 10. By the time those same two actresses made the movie, Duke was 15 and looked roughly her age.
Grabelsky is tiny enough to make suspending disbelief about her age a snap. Also tiny enough that McAndrew, with whom she seems perfectly matched, has no trouble hoisting her over her shoulder—which is exactly what happens during the breakfast-table battle of wills that forms the play’s most memorable scene. It takes up most of Act 2 and is all but wordless, with the tutor insisting that her student, who has always been permitted to scavenge from every plate on the table, sit still in a chair and eat her own food with a spoon. McAndrew is imperious and determined, Grabelsky rambunctious and headstrong; scrambled eggs, spoons, plates, napkins, and chairs are soon flying in all directions.
Marginally quieter moments follow, in which Helen learns to mimic the finger-letterings Annie uses to spell out “water,” “doll,” and other words. Alas, the child fails to realize that the letters stand for anything. To her, it’s all just a game, and Annie is as flummoxed as anyone else when it comes to figuring out how to help her make the leap to language.
“What is she,” wonders her teacher, “without words?”
At Arena, that question is accompanied by a flurry of fingers—16 hands signing away furiously—in a staging fillip that speaks volumes about the lessons learned since the real Annie Sullivan first got through to Helen Keller, in 1887. Olcott positions his eight silent witnesses (some of whom are hearing-impaired) in individual foxholes around the stage and has them sign selectively, as needed. Sometimes only the witness nearest a speaking actor translates the words; other times they all do. Lest that sound distracting, I should add that the device simply provides hearing audiences with an intriguing additional layer of visuals and gives Olcott a couple of opportunities for translation jokes. For nonhearing audiences, it must be a real lifeline, and it’s hard to imagine a play for which it would be more appropriate.
Olcott has cast the Keller household as the American Melting Pot writ small—African-American mom, Caucasian dad, Asian brother, a multicultural staff of servants—and he’s taken pains to emphasize the evening’s humor, making sure that physicality reigns supreme.
The director is aided by design work that’s more than up to snuff, from Rosemary Pardee’s frilly 19th-century gowns (Helen’s outfits are a particular triumph of clever camouflage) to the Southern atmospherics conjured up by lighting designer Allen Lee Hughes. And if the effusive standing ovation on opening night is any indication, the result of their efforts is a Miracle Worker that’s going to be packing in crowds for the duration. Deservedly so. CP