As a relative newcomer to the Raleigh area, this reviewer had heard of, but not yet experienced, the sort of immersive theater in which historical tales are played out on historic sites, allowing the audience to move through the space and experience these re-enactments up close and personal. To finally experience one such a play, and for it to be Seed Art Share’s production of The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, was an especially sweet treat.
While not indigenous to this area (the original story took place in Tuscumbia, Alabama), The Miracle Worker creatively retells the story of the Keller family, whose daughter Helen succumbed to sickness as a toddler, leaving the child completely blind and deaf. By five years of age, Helen Keller is little more than a wildling, stumbling around and causing great grief and chaos in her family home. The Kellers take a chance on Annie Sullivan, a teacher from the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, MA, bringing her in to see if she can teach their wild child how to behave.
Upon arriving, Annie is appalled at the state of Helen’s condition and immediately gets to work. Born with her own vision problems that left her blind most of her life, and only able to see after several surgeries that left her eyes extremely sensitive to light, Annie is determined to reach into Helen’s dark and silent prison and teach her about the world outside. What follows is a contest of wills between Annie and Helen, Annie and the Kellers, and even between Annie and her own haunted past.
Director Dustin Britt is especially clever in his casting choices, making this show truly a family affair by relying heavily on the exceptionally talented Blum family. Seth Blum plays the ultimate patriarch — Capt. Arthur Keller — a widower who has remarried and is struggling to maintain militant control over his household, despite the challenges presented by his rebellious oldest son (by his first wife) and the problematic first child of his second wife.
Blum brings all the intractable bluster needed for this character, while still allowing for nuance when needed. Rebecca Blum is just about perfect as Capt. Keller’s second wife, Kate. Her wide-eyed earnestness conveys the desperation of a mother at the end of her rope, while bringing the steeliness of character needed to fight for her child, even when that love comes in the wrong forms.
Benjamin D. Tarlton, who played Capt. Keller’s eldest son, Jimmy, was convincing as a sullen boy on the verge of becoming a man, fighting for his father’s approval while resenting deeply his new mother and wild young sister. And one cannot help but be captured by Havana Blum, who combines youthful innocence with a stage presence mature beyond her years in order to play a convincing and extremely sympathetic (and, at times, hilarious) Helen.
Playing Helen Keller (1880-1968) challenging role for anyone, and Havana Blum performs splendidly. The supporting cast rounding out the family also performed well, creating the environment of a stately Southern home with a big problem.
Heather J. Strickland’s rather breathless Annie Sullivan (1866-1936) bursts on the scene like a Southern storm, full of determination to make her mark on this family and put her own personal demons to rest. Her focus on reaching Helen is passionate to the point of frenzy at times; and in the intimate setting, it was difficult not to get immersed in her emotional output. The play itself wove through several rooms of the Historic Borden Building, from the stately front room to Annie’s room to the dining room, in a very effective manner.
Audiences are guided by a cast member in full period attire, whose guidance makes the scene transitions go smoothly, accompanied by the deep bass and Southern musical charms of The Shoalsmen, who also performed at intermission.
Dustin Britt’s direction is strong, and he has chosen just the right rooms in the historical building to properly convey the story; one felt as if one was attending the dining room scenes as one of the Keller family members. The only slight miss was one scene that was so dimly lit that the audience members were squinting nearly as much as Annie Sullivan herself. The cast’s strong performances made the scene work, however; and no emotional impact was lost.
Set dressing and props were well done by Tyson H. Jones, effectively capturing the period and making the spaces come alive. Much praise is also due to Tara Nicole Williams, who had the great task of coordinating the fight scenes between Annie and Helen. Those intense and essential parts of the story were executed with all the frenzy needed, along with moments of well-timed humor. As the story reaches its climax, outdoors in a Southern twilight, huddled around the water pump, there is hardly a dry eye among audience members and cast alike.
This kind the visceral storytelling has especially deep impact, and it’s well suited to this story in particular. A dramatization about real-life people and events, Seed Art Share’s presentation of The Miracle Worker goes beyond mere events and explores the nature of the human soul, of interpersonal communication on the deepest of levels.
For Annie Sullivan, this wasn’t just about teaching a child to spell; it was about reaching her soul and setting her free. In a world where it seems like effective communication is exceptionally difficult despite — or, perhaps, because of — advanced technological wonders, it’s refreshing to take this journey into the deepest parts of what makes us human: the touch of a hand, the expression of love, and the value of the human soul.
Sold out for its one-weekend run, The Miracle Worker was a treat that will live long in the hearts of those who were fortunate enough to be a part of it. Seed Art Share has done something they should be extremely proud of, and this reviewer eagerly looks forward to their future endeavors. If they all have the heart, compassion, and social relevance as this one, then Seed Art Share’s voice will make a powerful contribution to the Raleigh theater scene.
SECOND OPINION: Aug. 8th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/a-successful-raleigh-theater-family-plays-a-famous-historical-one-the-kellers-in-seed-art-shares-immersive-the-miracle-worker/Content?oid=16741202; Aug 1st Hillsborough, NC WHUP/104.7 FM interview with director Dustin K. Britt and actors Heather J. Strickland, Al Riggs, and Aya Wallace, conducted by Wayne Leonard for “Lights Up!”: https://whupfm.org/episode/lights-up-8118-permanent-archive/; and July 29th Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Roy C. Dicks: https://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/article215505405.html.
See Art Share presents THE MIRACLE WORKER at 7 p.m. Aug. 12 in the Borden Building in Fred Fletcher Park, 820 Clay St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.
TICKETS: This show is SOLD OUT.
The Miracle Worker (1959 Broadway drama): https://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=1248 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-miracle-worker-6109 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Miracle_Worker_(play) (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
William Gibson (playwright, 1914-2008): https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/william-gibson-9133 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0317217/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Gibson_(playwright) (Wikipedia).
Dustin Britt (director): https://www.facebook.com/dustinkbrittreview/ (Facebook page).
Melanie Simmons of Cary, NC is a film and stage actress with a BA degree in Theatre from Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, CA. She also studied dance at San Diego Mesa College and acting with Sande Shurin Acting Studios in New York City and at The Actor’s Workshop in Los Angeles, CA. She has performed locally at the Holly Springs Cultural Center in Holly Springs, Sonorous Road Theatre & Film Studio in Raleigh, and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum in Cary. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.