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Michael Newman

‘The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects.’   — Helen Keller

By Heidi Sutton

Theatre Three continues its 49th season with William Gibson’s beautiful play “The Miracle Worker,” the inspirational story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.

Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller was afflicted with an unknown illness (possibly scarlet fever) at the age of 19 months that left her deaf, blind and mute. By the age of 7, she had become frustrated in her dark and silent world and frequently threw tantrums to get what she wanted. 

In a final attempt to help her before having her institutionalized, her parents reached out to the Perkins School for the Blind, which sent its top student, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, to live with the family and teach the child sign language. Helen would later recount that the day she met Sullivan was her “soul’s birthday.”

Expertly directed by Bradlee E. Bing (“12 Angry Men”), the dramatic production keeps the audience fixated from the beginning — a darkened stage where we hear Helen’s parents realize what has happened to their baby — to the final climactic water-pump scene where we all feel a lump in our throats.

From the moment Sullivan arrives, Helen is determined to fight her every step of the way. Used to being spoiled, she sees no need to learn the alphabet or eat with a utensil. The tumultuous relationship between teacher and pupil is played out in the physically violent scenes choreographed by Steven Uihlein. Forks and spoons and plates of food are often strewn about the stage, and the two often engage in outright brawls on the floor. It is exhausting to watch but also succeeds in revealing Sullivan’s determination to show Helen how to communicate through “a light of words.”

Not making any headway and with constant interference from the family, Sullivan moves Helen to the seclusion of the garden shed. Given only two more weeks to make a breakthrough, she tells the girl, “Now I have to teach you one word — everything.”

Eleven-year-old Cassandra La Rocco is superb as Helen, while Jessica Mae Murphy (“The Addams Family”) is outstanding as Sullivan in the roles made famous by Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, with powerful performances by Michael Newman as Helen’s Civil War veteran father, Captain Keller; Susan Emory as her overindulgent mother, Kate; Eric J. Hughes as the half-brother James; Linda Pentz as Aunt Ev; and Cameron Turner and Meredith Szalay as servants Percy and Viney.

The elaborate set by Randall Parsons; costumes by Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John; and lighting design by Stacey Boggs tie everything together to produce a wonderful evening at the theater. The standing ovation on opening night was well deserved. Don’t miss this show. It will leave a lasting impact on your heart and soul.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Miracle Worker” through April 28. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. The Mainstage season closes with “The Wizard of Oz” from May 18 to June 22. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 and up. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

The cast of ‘12 Angry Men’. Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

For a play that takes place in a single room, “12 Angry Men” has had quite a ride. Written by Reginald Rose after he served as a juror on a manslaughter case, it was turned into a made-for-television movie and broadcast live on the CBS program Studio One in 1954. 

The success of the television production resulted in a film adaptation in 1957. Starring Henry Fonda and Jack Klugman, the movie is consistently ranked as one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time and was selected for preservation in the United States Film Registry in 2007 for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”

From left, Michael Mingoia, John McNamara, Steven Uihlein, Jack Green, Gene Durney, Steve Ayle and Michael Newman.

And significant it is. Over 60 years later, the behind-closed-doors look at the American legal system continues to make an impact in community theaters all around the world. This month, it makes its way to the Mainstage of Theatre Three, a stark contrast to its last production, “Nunsense,” and is more relevant than ever.

Twelve men from different backgrounds sit on a jury where the accused has been charged with murder in the first degree … premeditated homicide. They are tasked with deliberating the guilty or innocent verdict beyond a reasonable doubt of a teenage boy who is accused of stabbing his father with a switchblade. If found guilty, he could face the electric chair. The judge orders the jury to “separate the facts from the fancy” and the deliberations begin.

Jim Pearsall, Michael Newman, Michael Mingoia and Gene Durney.

Directed by Bradlee Bing, the seasoned cast does a terrific job conveying the sense of grave responsibility. As the jurors are led into the deliberating room, the security guard (Alan Schelp) locks them in, giving the sense of being held hostage until a decision is made. 

The actors also effectively convey the temperature in the room by taking turns to fix the “broken” air conditioner, taking off their jackets, taking a sip of water and wiping their foreheads and back of necks. The audience feels the heat, which adds to the volatile environment that envelops the room.

The odds are stacked against the teenager. There are three witnesses, there’s a motive (his father beat him regularly), his alibi is shaky and the murder weapon belongs to him, “But sometimes the facts staring you in the face are wrong.”

A preliminary vote results in 11 guilty, one not guilty — Juror #8, played by Steve Ayle. “Boy, oh boy, there’s always one!” The majority of the jury just want to get out of there and get on with their lives. One has tickets to a baseball game, another wants to get back to running his business and so on. 

Foreground, from left, Mihcael Mingoia, Jack Green, Jules Jacobs, Steven Uihlein; background, from left, David Altman, Joseph Cavagnet and Leonard DeLorenzo

But Juror #8 has doubts and he’s not ready to give in to peer pressure. “A man’s life is on the line …” He asks to see the murder weapon again, to see the layout of one of the witness’ apartment, always questioning and pointing out inconsistencies as the other jurors change their vote one by one.

The characters and plot and suspense develop slowly and that’s the beauty of it. From “You couldn’t change my mind if you talked for a hundred years” and “We don’t owe this kid a thing” to “Maybe we should talk about it” and “We have a job to do, let’s do it” to the final “Let him live,” the emotional progression is an incredible thing to watch.

The end result is a powerful and thought-provoking evening at the theater. The endless clapping at the end of the first act and the standing ovation at the end of Saturday’s opening night performance was most well deserved.

The cast: Joseph Cavagnet, Leonard DeLorenzo, Jack Green, John McNamara, Steven Uihlein, Jim Pearsall, Michael Newman, Steve Ayle, Jules Jacobs, Gene Durney, David Altman, Michael Mingoia and Alan Schelp

Sponsored by Bridgehampton National Bank for the third year in a row, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “12 Angry Men” through May 5. Running time is two hours and 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission. The Mainstage season closes with the musical comedy whodunit “Curtains” from May 19 to June 23. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 to 12. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

All photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

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