The Miracle Worker
Friday, Aug. 10–Sunday, Aug. 12
The Borden Building, Raleigh
Immersive theater attempts to pull viewers through the fourth wall, placing them within the world of the story. Sleep No More, the form’s most famous example, is still sending audiences prowling through a seedy hotel after seven years in Chelsea. Locally, Little Green Pig, Sonorous Road, and MOJOAA Performing Arts have all experimented with the form over the last season.
The Borden Building, a two-story brick mansion built in 1900 at the site of a Raleigh orphanage, all but qualified as an additional character in Seed Art Share’s production of The Miracle Worker, directed by Dustin Britt. True, there were momentary friction points as our host navigated a capacity crowd of about thirty through the hallways of the atmospheric mansion before seating them at the perimeters of rooms representing a dining room, parlor, and bedroom in the Keller family’s house. Then there was the matter of daylight scenes performed beneath anachronistic electric lights, though later sequences were convincingly illuminated by lanterns.
These concerns are secondary, though, given the caliber of the performances we encounter in this telling of the Helen Keller story. Given Keller’s rough-and-tumble childhood, I anticipated a fully physicalized performance by nine-year-old Havana Blum, who captured the joy, neediness, isolation, and imperious mischief of a preverbal girl who is both deaf and blind. I did not, however, expect the degree of physicality observed in Heather Strickland’s work as her would-be teacher, Annie Sullivan. Of course, both characters brawled in climactic breakfast and dinnertime scenes as Sullivan tried to teach young Helen table manners. But elsewhere, the manifestations of stress and physical pain on Strickland’s face, throat, and form brought to life a character constantly harried by her own medical and family history.
Seth and Rebecca Blum were strong in the supporting roles as Helen’s parents, but Benjamin Tarleton’s work as Helen’s sarcastic older half-brother, James, seemed underdeveloped the night I saw it. Kurt Benrud delivered a career-best performance as the avuncular Mr. Anagnos, the headmaster of Sullivan’s school for the blind, and Aya Wallace’s cameos as Viney, the cook, were robust.
Music director Al Riggs’s vocalists and seven-piece band, The Shoalsmen, effectively punctuated scene changes with Americana numbers like “Down to the River to Pray.” They also provided psychological underscoring during Sullivan’s unsettling flashback scenes. As the shadows grew in The Borden Building, time travel seemed possible, in a work that effectively reconnected us with a midcentury theater classic. A one-weekend run wasn’t enough; here’s hoping for a revival.