2nd Star Productions grabs the audience with The Miracle Worker, honestly retelling the story of Helen Keller and the teacher who releases the little girl from her silent, dark prison.
The play dramatizes two weeks in the life of 7-year-old Helen, who is trapped in her own deaf and blind world until Annie Sullivan, 20, arrives in Alabama from her studies at a school for the blind in Boston.
For many of us, Anne Bancroft defined the role of Annie Sullivan, first in her 1960 Tony Award-winning stage performance and later in her 1962 Oscar-winning film portrayal. At age 16, Patty Duke played Helen, winning the Academy Award for best-supporting actress.
The success of this play depends on actresses playing these leading roles, as well as the director's ability to avoid sentimentality and concentrate on the luminous intelligence that lights Helen's educational journey.
2nd Star's co-directors Jane B. Wingard and Charles W. Maloney tapped her 10-year-old granddaughter Vivian, who appeared in her first show at age 2 and delivers a near-flawless performance as Helen. She conveys her strong will through grunts, flailing and stumbling to convince us that she is deaf and blind but also strong and bright.
A chorus dancer in 2nd Star's 2005 production of Damn Yankees, Rebecca Placella portrays Annie Sullivan with all the quiet strength, determination and Irish grit this role requires. Placella's Annie is up to every rigorous demand, including the famous breakfast scene where a spoiled Helen persists in her animal-like behavior that her parents had tolerated.
Both actresses get a workout and probably a few bruises as they wrestle with each other as plates and utensils fly. At the end a satisfied Annie notes: "The room is a wreck, but her napkin is folded."
Aware that her family's pity is unconducive to Helen's learning, Annie removes the child from her home to set up private quarters in the garden house. She conveys firm patience along with the steel determination to keep seeking the key to unlocking Helen's mind.
Among the supporting players, Tania Rosa Bindhoff as Helen's mother, Kate, strikes the right balance of maternal protectiveness, loving confusion and determination to find her daughter help.
Edward Kuhl does well in what is essentially the one-dimensional role of Helen's father, Captain Keller. A standout performance is given by Stevie Mangum,15, as Helen's half-brother James Keller, who is annoyed by the constant disruption Helen creates but sees that Annie Sullivan may be able to help Helen. His lines create needed humor.
Providing warmth and a lovely voice in singing favorite hymns is TiaJuana Rountree as the family maid and cook.
The children who play Annie's students at the Perkins Institute for the Blind create an early memorable scene.
The set is painstakingly constructed to create in turn two institutional offices and rooms of the Keller family home, complete with working doors dropping into place at both stage left and later stage right. The rooms are creations of what we'd envision as the home of a well-to-do Alabama family in the 1880s.
The lighting conveys the mood of every scene, and the sound that comes from the demons from her earlier tormented life that pursue Annie's psyche are especially haunting.
Despite our knowing the outcome of this true story, we still root for Annie and Helen. I was so caught up in the story that afterward I checked out her biography and discovered Helen Keller lived a full rich life of nearly 88 years -- a life dedicated to helping others and to furthering women's causes.
The Miracle Worker continues weekends through Sept. 22 with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. Sundays at Bowie Playhouse in White Marsh Park. Ticket prices are $18 for general admission and $15 for those 56 and older, and students. 410-757-5700 or visit www.2ndstarproductions.com.