Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: The Miracle Worker at Lakewood Playhouse

Published in The News Tribune, Feb. 27, 2015
(L to R) JAMES A. GILLETTI (Mr. Keller), GRETCHEN BOYT (Mrs. Keller), LIBERTY EVANS-AGNEW (Helen Keller) and DEYA OZBURN (Anne Sullivan). Photo by KATE PATERNO-LICK
I attended the preview performance of “The Miracle Worker” at Lakewood Playhouse. The preview is the final technical dress rehearsal and the cast’s first opportunity to try it out in front of a live audience. As Managing Artistic Director John Munn explained in his curtain speech, things are expected to go wrong during a preview performance. In this case, nothing of significance went wrong. It was practically flawless.

“The Miracle Worker” is the story of the developing relationship between young Helen Keller (Liberty Evans-Agnew) and her teacher, Annie Sullivan (Deya Ozburn). The title comes from Mark Twain, who called Annie a miracle worker. It was also alluded to in the beginning of the play when Annie’s teacher, Anagnos (Dennis Worrell) sends Annie off to Alabama to work as Helen Keller’s governess. Anagnos says, “No one expects you to work miracles, even for twenty-five dollars a month.”

Unable to see, hear or speak, Helen expresses her frustration by violently acting out, and thereby throws the Keller household into a constant state of turmoil. When Annie arrives at the Keller home and meets Helen and the family, she quickly realizes that she has to somehow teach her how to understand and sign words, and perhaps more urgently, she must figure out some way to discipline her. Helen is essentially feral.

(L to R) LIBERTY EVANS-AGNEW (Helen Keller) and DEYA OZBURN (Anne Sullivan).
James Venturini’s set design is attractive and functional, with separate rooms in the Keller house in the back corners of the in-the-round stage area and a large central area that doubles as dining room, yard, and Annie’s school for the blind. And there is a large window high up that Annie has to climb out of when Helen locks her in her room. The only drawback to the set is that audience members on two sides have to turn heads in order to see certain scenes.

Rachel Wilkie’s period costumes are outstanding, Daniel Cole’s lighting design works beautifully, Pug Bujeaud’s direction is superb, and the acting is of the highest caliber imaginable.
Gretchen Boyt as Helen’s mother and James A. Gilletti as her father are totally believable. Boyt’s acting is relatively subdued for such a highly emotional character. The audience can see and feel her sometimes tortured changes of thought and feeling conveyed through posture and facial expression as she struggles against her natural inclination to indulge Helen’s every whim. This is tellingly displayed particularly in her background acting when others are speaking.

Gilletti also convincingly portrays inner struggles as his autocratic nature butts heads with his softness of heart. His Southern accent is spot-on in conveying both place and class.
Ozburn’s Annie and Evans-Agnew’s Helen are mesmerizing. Ozburn is a seasoned pro whose performances I have been praising for years (most recently in “The Children’s Hour” at Lakewood Playhouse) and she nails it as Annie. Evans-Agnew is a newcomer to the stage. She is 13 years old, and her only other stage appearance was as Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird” at Tacoma Little Theatre. If they handed out Tony Awards for community theater it would be hard to decide which of these two deserved it most. The intensity and the reality of their physically demanding performances are mind-boggling. I can’t imaging watching their performances without aching for them and celebrating their final triumph.

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 15
WHERE: Lakewood Playhouse, 5729 Lakewood Towne Center Blvd., Lakewood
TICKETS: $25.00, $22.00 military, $21.00 seniors and $19.00 students/educators, pay what you can
INFORMATION: 253-588-0042,

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