William Gibson's The Miracle Worker is the best-known telling of Helen Keller, the deaf and blind girl who learned to speak. Currently running in a Cary Players production directed by Tina Vance, the play focuses on the first few years of Helen's life, as her teacher Annie Sullivan (Kirsten Ehlert) struggles to teach her to communicate.
The story, familiar to anyone who has seen the 1962 film with Anne Bancroft, features lots of grabbing, shoving, yelling and, finally, a big emotional breakthrough. Ehlert, as the ambitious and determined Sullivan, is solid, as is Sharon Galluzzo as Helen's mom Kate, a woman trying to balance motherly affection with dread and unease.
The 6-year-old Ashton Layh, though she obviously does not have many lines, has the hardest job as Helen. Not only does she pull off a fairly demanding physical performance—lots of crawling, pushing and throwing, mixed with a good deal of slapstick—Layh also has to make the audience care for a girl who, to all appearances, seems like the "devil child" many refer to her as. The play works largely because she succeeds.
Gibson's play, with its uplifting, family-friendly message of overcoming obstacles, is unapologetically sweet, though it does have its moments of irony. The more historically aware may appreciate the many gibes at the expense of Helen's father's (Pat Berry) Confederate career, but they may not know that in real life, Helen not only learned to speak, she became a socialist and political activist of the left.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Can we talk?"