‘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.