“The Miracle Worker,” produced by the Arlington Players, starts strong and keeps getting stronger.
Because of the fame of the original play and the movie adaptation, dramatizing the education of Helen Heller by Annie Sullivan, most audience members know from the start just what will happen — it is, after all, based on historical fact. But there is a tautness to the performances and the storytelling that keeps everyone's attention.
The part of the deaf-and-blind Keller is a plum role for any actress, allowing (and requiring) complete abandon in the physical demands of the role. It earned Patty Duke stardom at age 14 when she first brought the role to Broadway in 1959 and repeated her role in the 1961 movie. But Helen Keller was actually six or seven when the nearly blind Annie Sullivan was sent to be her teacher. Where does a director find an actress that young, who can still pull it off?
The Arlington Players have a rare find in 8-year-old Mollie Clement, an actress who is capable of performing the physically and emotionally demanding role of Keller, and who is about the right age. Under the guidance of director of Rosemary Hartman, with a valuable assist from fight choreographer Steve Lada, Clement is totally convincing in the role. Her confrontations with everyone, in a world she can neither hear or see, are violent, terrifying and totally logical.
What is more, Clement manages to make the supremely selfish behavior of her character both understandable and touching as an indication of her need for contact with the world and affectionate and reciprocal relationships with human beings. The sense of reality implicit in her performance makes it a shock to see her eyes focusing on colleagues and her surroundings during the curtain call. For the preceding two hours those eyes were blank, seemingly unseeing during the most demanding physical confrontations.
Clement isn't the only fine actress on the stage. No production of "The Miracle Worker" can work without a well matched pair of actresses in the central roles.
Karen Jadlos Shotts is convincing as the equally strong-willed Annie Sullivan. She provides the intellectual components of William Gibson's award-winning play as well as matching Clement's purely emotional portrayal of Keller. The Arlington Players have fielded a very good pair indeed.
There are other characters in the play, of course, and the cast here is fine. But the focus never strays far from the battle between Keller and Sullivan. The story is set up quickly with a starkly affecting opening scene in which the Keller’s parents discover their daughter’s condition in Alabama and a quick jump to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Massachusetts where Sullivan is given her assignment. Once those establishing scenes are finished, however, the pair of Shotts and Clement take over the evening and propel it swiftly along toward an emotionally satisfying climax.
The design of the production is handsome with a very functional three level set and period costumes establishing the feel of the genteel Southern home wracked by a parent's worst nightmare.