It is the late 1880s when Annie Sullivan, the young, nearly blind teacher with the broad Irish brogue, takes on the formidable task of teaching the blind, deaf, 6-year-old Helen Keller the connection between words and things. Annie's main challenge is to cut through the barriers set up by Helen's well-intentioned but overly-indulgent family members, who alternately coddle and disdain the confused girl, and get the child to an isolated shed where she can eliminate distractions, get down to business and reach into the girl's intelligence.
That's the core of The Miracle Worker, playwright William Gibson's take on an older Helen's memoirs, playing weekends through Feb. 17 at the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse.
And cutting out distractions could stand as a metaphor for the Stage West production itself: Because of an overly-complicated set — all those doors and steps and nooks and crannies and set pieces — the audience feels it's fighting its way through a maze to get to the essence of this very moving play. And that doesn't count the long blackouts to rearrange the furniture or the mood-breaking strobe light from the stage to signal the light booth "we're ready" for the next scene.
That said, the effort is well worth it, if for no other reason than to see yet another sterling performance by the gifted young actor Jessica Virginia (Proof, Veronica's Room, Chicago) who plays Annie Sullivan with grit, grace and guts that somehow overcome that cumbersome set to sparkle and shine. It's not only her steady Irish accent that lends credence to her performance, it's also every wave of her hand, sharp look, perfectly timed action and perfectly articulated and projected word.
She has a fine foil in young Holly Frendberg, who shows great acting promise as young Helen. Frendberg has not a line of dialogue, but her grunts, groans and shouts tell volumes about her character's frustrations, and her face can be as expressive as a Shakespeare soliloquy.
Sam McCall is a convincing Capt. Keller, fresh from the Civil War conflict and still fighting not only the "Great Lost Cause," but also battling his grown son James (Jeff Germann), who seems callous when it comes to Helen, but in the end is the only one willing to let her be given the gift of a real life. McCall's natural Alabama accent serves him well in this role, and his opening night hesitations should improve with time. Germann's physical looseness personifies the n'er-do-well Southern son resentful of the new order, represented not only by lost battlefields, but also by the loss of his mother and the arrival of what he sees as interlopers: his mousy stepmother Kate (Toni Merchant) and the disruptive Helen.
An extra treat is Pat Ryan, as Helen's Aunt Ev, a Southern lady whose instinct is to gloss over things and, perhaps more important, keep up appearances to outsiders for what she sees as her aristocratic family. (Think of her as Dowager Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey.)
The show also introduces a bevy of young talent — Adri-Anna Harris, Rachel Sevick, and a 4-year-old billed only as "Olive" and a couple of uncredited young performers — as well as returns by Stage West stalwarts Cheryl Robers as the maid Viney; Dan Brijbag as the director of the School for the Blind who sends Annie to help Helen; and John Masterson as a kindly, but misguided doctor.
Director George Dwyer was fortunate to have such a fine cast, but he would do them, his play and his audience a favor by clearing out the clutter on the stage to make way for his players to tell the story smoothly and quickly.