Review: Cast works miracles with Helen Keller play

Forget, for a second, about the triumph of the human spirit.

That's what you're supposed to remember, actually, when you see "The Miracle Worker" - and with good reason, because the play tells the true-life tale of Annie Sullivan's efforts to help young Helen Keller, deaf and blind, communicate with the outside world.

But it's impossible to see Lawrence Community Theatre's production of the play and not be moved by something else: the triumph of acting. And a reminder why theater - in this age of iPods, laptops, Xboxes and every other kind of virtual entertainment - remains an enlivening experience.

The key scene occurs at the end of the first act. Annie, played by Barbara Johnson, has run out of patience with Helen's rudeness: The girl wanders around the breakfast table, grabbing food off of others' plates, refusing to sit at her seat or use a fork ... or even be nice.

What ensues is a rollicking rumble between Annie and Helen, played by 10-year-old Sally Spurgeon. The two wrestle, slap and even spit at each other during a wordless 15-minute showdown in which Annie continues to drag Helen to the table, force a spoon in her hand and make her eat properly.

See the show

What: 'The Miracle Worker' When: April 13-15 and 20-23; performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Lawrence Community Theatre, 1501 N.H. Tickets: $15-$18; call 843-7469 Ticket info: 843-7469

When it's all over, the stage is covered in egg and water, with chairs strewn to the side. You can't smell the sweat pouring off the actors, exactly, but you can see it gleaming on the foreheads of Johnson and Spurgeon.

Community theater troupes often get knocked - sometimes rightly - with "Waiting For Guffman" jokes about local actors whose ambition far exceeds their talents. But Johnson and Spurgeon have earned immunity from such mockery: In the "food fight" scene, and throughout the play, they bring a passion, intensity and realism to their roles that belies their age (Spurgeon) and amateur status.

And that helps this production. William Gibson's script for the play is nearly 50 years old, and it's a bit creaky in places - particularly when Annie stands alone on stage while her "childhood memories" are pumped to the audience over the sound system.

Other than that, no complaints. The set, designed by Jack Riegle, makes inventive use of the theater's small space. The supporting cast is charming. Piet Knetsch, the director, does an excellent job of bringing it all together.

But it is Johnson and Spurgeon who deserve the highest praise. They make "The Miracle Worker" worth seeing.


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