CRESTVIEW — When I was in grade school some of my little friends told me some Helen Keller jokes. I couldn’t wait to get home to share them with my family.
“Hey Mom,” I said, bursting into the kitchen. “Did you ever see Helen Keller’s husband?”
The correct answer is, “Neither did she.”
Instead, Mother thought a moment and replied, “When I was a student nurse, we had Miss Keller as a patient. A gentleman would visit her sometimes. Perhaps that was her husband.”
Mom’s response may have deflated a young comedian, but it suddenly made me aware that Helen Keller had been a real, living, breathing, cognizant and, if indeed the visitor at Philadelphia General was her husband, loving person.
It also made me suitably ashamed for telling jokes at the expense of someone less blessed than I.
View From the Stage’s production of “The Miracle Worker,” running this afternoon and tomorrow at 2:30 and this evening at 7 p.m., does the same.
Skittering on the edge of being institutionalized, as was the common practice for the deaf, mute and blind in the 19th century, Keller’s family chose to send for a teacher, the titular character in William Gibson’s powerful drama.
The pairing of Brooklyn Onuffer as Helen and Sarah Hawkins, the nearly blind tutor Annie Sullivan, was one of the most magnificent pieces of casting I’ve ever seen in a theatre-going career that dates to when I was three years old.
Their cavalcade of raw emotions runs the gamut from often heart-wrenching, sometimes heart-stopping, sometimes warm, sometimes adversarial and even sometimes comical and ultimately loving.
The dining room battle scene, which Brooklyn said was the toughest to perform, was so masterfully executed that even the audience woman who texted through most of opening night’s first act put down her smartphone and took notice.
At last Annie emerged triumphant.
“The room’s a wreck but her napkin is folded,” Annie informs Mrs. Kate Keller, warming, lovingly and, when need be, forcefully portrayed by Julie Bywater.
The engaging cast also includes an impressive young talent in Douglas Black as Helen’s older half-brother James, whose observations propel the story and likewise contribute some blessed light humor to break the tension.
“Nothing I say is right,” James laments.
“Then why say anything?” Kate Keller replies.
As Helen’s father, Capt. Keller, Jeremy Edwards was the weakest of the leads, but only because the others were so strong, including Douglas as his son, who after years of browbeating finally stands up to his father in a pivotal scene.
From VFTS’s holiday production of “A Christmas Carol,” we know Edwards is an accomplished actor. However, in “The Miracle Worker” his emotions seemed to be limited to blustery and blustier.
Such bluster, however, served to set the stage for a sudden rush of welcome tenderness unexpected from the otherwise curmudgeonly Confederate Army veteran, who through most of show is Annie Sullivan’s biggest skeptic.
A strong supporting cast includes a bevy of buoyant and loving blind children who bid Annie goodbye as she leaves the Boston school for the blind where she was a pupil, and her teacher and mentor, Dr. Anagnos, sensitively played by Joseph Kenkel.
Bettye Keefer also provides comic relief as the accommodating Aunt Ev, who shares her brother, Capt. Keller’s, skepticism that Annie Sullivan can’t help Helen and has only turned the Keller household topsy-turvy.
View From the Stage has indeed proved the local culture scene’s own Miracle Workers by bringing to Crestview a sophisticated, powerful and engagingly performed drama of this caliber.
Producer Berit Faust and director Nancy Black deserve kudos for broadening our theatrical horizons. I look forward to future VFTS productions of this caliber and in all genres. Meanwhile, don’t miss “The Miracle Worker” over at Warriors Hall. Tickets are available at the door.