‘The Miracle Worker’

THEATER REVIEW: Rider University director Pat Chmel has staged an extraordinary evening that will have you on the edge of your seat, handkerchief at the ready.

By: Stuart Duncan
   The story of Helen Keller is one of courage and inspiration, first expressed in Ms. Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life. In it, she tells how she was born in Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1880, the daughter of Captain Keller and his second wife. She was a healthy, lively child until 19 months old, when a cruel fever left her blind and deaf. She quickly grew unruly and virtually unmanageable, spoiled by desperate parents.


Charlotte Snow Najar as Helen with Katierose Donohue as Annie Sullivan in Pat Chmel’s Rider University production.

   As part of that desperation, her father and mother hired a 20-year-old nursemaid from Boston. Annie Sullivan had been blind at age 5, but cured by a series of two delicate operations conducted at The Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Annie realized instinctively that if she could teach young Helen to communicate, she would become a different person, but control came first and that meant discipline — an almost constant battle with her young charge and the parents, who often disapproved.
   The fascinating struggle was molded by writer William Gibson, first as a one-act play, then dance commentary, next a television play and finally, in 1959, as a three-act Broadway play with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in the leads. The pair won Tony Awards for best actress and best supporting actress, although there was controversy as to which was really which. In 1962, the two made a Hollywood film and won Oscars for their roles.
   The show is seldom revived, in great part because it is so difficult to find two actresses suited for the roles of Helen and Annie. However, in Lawrenceville, Rider University director Pat Chmel has staged an extraordinary production at The Yvonne Theatre on campus, an evening that will have you on the edge of your seat, handkerchief at the ready.
   Mr. Chmel began by casting his two leads — Katierose Donohue as Annie and Charlotte Snow Najar as Helen — months ago. He then worked separately and together with the two before adding the rest of the excellent company. The result is a staging that focuses on the physicality of what playwright Gibson demands. The two pummel each other unmercifully before the respect, and therefore the discipline, is established. It is seldom that a director has the opportunity to stage the famous "breakfast food fight" with two actresses properly matched in age and physical qualities, and there director Chmel makes the most of it. It is a scene of intense conflict, tempered by flashes of humor and done to perfection.
   There is talent, however, right down the cast list — Nicholas Andrefsky is a superb Captain Keller, properly blind to his own prejudices and therefore ungiving in his love. Rick McKelvey shows immense promise in the role of Jimmy, the half brother with needs of his own. Xavia Harris as Martha, the much-abused maid, has the pleasure of working with her own son, Kynan, as the young boy used by Annie to break Helen out of her solitude.
   Tharyle Prather has designed a lovely setting that covers not only the Keller farm and out property, but the Boston area as well. A very busy stage crew makes things move swiftly and without incident.
   The program at Rider continues to impress. Ms. Donohue is a sophomore theater scholarship student, and there are more like her in the offing.
   The Miracle Worker plays at The Yvonne Theatre on the Rider University campus, Route 206, Lawrenceville, through April 21. Performances: Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Tickets cost $5 for students and staff, $10 for all others. For information, call (609) 896-5000.