You probably feel you need a darned good reason to sit through “The Miracle Worker’’ again.
Trust me, Brittany Rolfs is that reason. I don’t expect to see many performances this year better than the one Rolfs is giving on the stage of the Wheelock Family Theatre as Annie Sullivan in William Gibson’s “Miracle Worker,’’ directed by Susan Kosoff.
Rolfs brings the same sense of all-consuming purpose to her vibrant portrayal that Sullivan brought to the challenge of teaching Helen Keller how to communicate. She so thoroughly disappears inside the role that there may be times when you forget she is acting at all.
“Miracle Worker’’ represents a swan song for Kosoff, who is retiring as producer of the theater she cofounded 31 years ago (though she is expected to direct future WFT productions). Kosoff is going out on a high note. This “Miracle Worker’’ will leave you with a full heart but no lingering toothache; it manages to be sentimental but not cloying.
Kosoff was right to gamble on someone as young as 8-year-old Audree Hedequist to play Helen. The third-grader from Wellesley ably rises to the challenge of playing a character who can only express herself through extremes of physical behavior, and who thus spends much of the play hurling herself around rooms and into people.
As Helen’s mother, Kate, Christine Power is quietly moving, reacting with a kind of desperate joy to something as simple as her daughter learning how to fold her own napkin.
But it is Rolfs who pulls you in. A 2009 graduate of Milton High School who now lives in New York, Rolfs is only 20, the same age Sullivan was when she went to work as Helen Keller’s governess and teacher in the 1880s.
Helen was a blind, deaf, and rambunctious youngster living with her parents in Alabama. (Janie E. Howland’s set for “Miracle Worker,’’ with its scuffed white clapboard, creates a genuine sense of place, conjuring the Keller household’s aura of faded post-bellum elegance). Annie was a former student at the Perkins School for the Blind with a tragic family history and scant preparation for the enormous undertaking before her.
In “Miracle Worker,’’ Annie is driven by a conscience-stricken need for redemption; she is haunted by the memory of her younger brother, who died in a poor house in Tewksbury (and whose piteous voice is heard a tad too often in voice-overs during the play). “I think God must owe me a resurrection,’’ she says early in the play.
So the instant Rolfs’s Annie first sees Hedequist’s Helen, she locks in on the girl with absolute focus: a puzzle to be solved, a child to be saved. Annie takes the girl’s hand, and, using her own thumb and forefinger on Helen’s palm, immediately begins to teach her the manual alphabet, starting with “D-O-L-L.’’
That fixity of concentration never ebbs as Annie labors to free Helen from isolation and silence. In her interactions with Helen’s parents and half brother, Annie can’t be bothered to conceal her rough edges; there is work to do. The child has been spoiled by her well-meaning parents, allowed to pluck food at random from everyone’s plates at dinner and generally wreak havoc. Annie calls a halt to all that, and even sets up separate living arrangements for her and Helen.
Rolfs wears wire-rimmed glasses, with her hair pulled back in a tight bun, and speaks in an Irish accent (Sullivan was the daughter of Irish immigrants). Annie’s manner is blunt, her movements are quick and graceless, and she has a preternatural confidence in her abilities, despite her youth and inexperience. “The only time I have trouble is when I’m right. Is it my fault it’s so often?’’ she says jauntily at one point.
The generally taut Wheelock production goes slack during the contentious exchanges between Helen’s father, Captain Keller (played by Neil Gustafson) and James (Robert St. Laurence), his son from a previous marriage. These scenes of conflict feel manufactured by the playwright as a too-obvious parallel narrative to the Annie-Helen story (father and son also have difficulty communicating, also are separated across a gulf of misunderstanding, and so on).
It is when the focus is on Annie and Helen, two indomitable figures locked in a contest of wills, that “Miracle Worker’’ carries a sense of not-a-second-to-waste urgency. In one remarkable, extended sequence, the two engage in a titanic struggle in the dining room, performed at full throttle and with pinpoint timing by Rolfs and Hedequist.
Throughout the play, Annie dishes out plenty of what today we would call “tough love’’ as she struggles to get through to Helen. But a bond is slowly developing, clash by clash, between the child and the woman she would eventually call “Teacher.’’ When the famous breakthrough at the water pump arrives, it’s a lump-in-the-throat moment, no question.
I found myself equally moved while thinking of the fact that when Annie Sullivan died many years later, long after the events depicted in “The Miracle Worker,’’ Helen Keller was at her bedside, holding her hand.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.