Saturday, May 21, 2011

Arts in Motion does good 'work' with Helen Keller story

Arts in Motion Theater Company takes on “The Miracle Worker,” the inspirational story of Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, who, thanks to her live-in tutor, Anne Sullivan, overcomes her handicap in a time when no one thought it was possible.
“The Miracle Worker,” which opened Thursday, May 19, at the Eastern Slope Inn Playhouse in North Conway, N.H. and is running Thursday through Sunday this weekend and next, focuses on the initial struggle of Sullivan (Julie Lanoie) to get through to the young, undisciplined Helen (Megan Perrin).
While “The Miracle Worker” is a cherished piece of theater, this probably has more to do the sheer power of the story than the play itself, which suffers from an uneven script by William Gibson. The first act is clunky, trite, heavy handed and allows for little subtlety.
As is the case with many plays, the first act is all mechanism, setting up the drama of the second act. The first act ends with a very funny scene in which Sullivan attempts to teach the unruly Helen table manners. It nicely sets up the second act, which shifts Helen away from her parents (Julianne Brosnan and Craig Holden) to one-on-one tutoring with Sullivan.
The second act is where the true drama of the story lies and what audiences respond to and remember most. The strength of these scenes more than compensates for the flaws of the first act and builds to a conclusion that is difficult not to be moved by.
The above criticisms are addressed at the play itself, not this production, which is very fine indeed. They are limited by the material in that first act, but then this would hold true of any production. Even the original New York Times review of the play in 1959 noted that elements of the show were “at times clumsy.”
This is a well-cast production with a assured direction by Barbara Spofford and a fantastic set by Deborah Jasien that recreates the 19th-century Keller estate.
Spofford and lighting designer Joshua Adams make some interesting lighting choices in the second act that make a lasting impression. When Helen and Sullivan have shifted to the garden house for private lessons, a spotlight is used to direct attention to events either in the garden house or main house. It is an effective bit of directing.
Lanoie, in spite of a come-and-go Irish accent, is very good as Sullivan, a strong-willed woman who fights for her beliefs and ideals. Lanoie is able to bring across that passion, but also portrays Sullivan's fears of failing Helen. It is a delicate balance between self-assuredness and insecurity that Lanoie handles well.
Perrin has a challenging role as Helen. Not only must she play blind, but, with the exception of grunts, yelling and crying, it is also a largely silent performance. It is kind of performance that could become laughable, but Perrin is convincing. While many in the family assume she isn't smart, Helen isn't stupid. Perrin is able to get that across in such scenes as when she has a mischievous grin after locking Sullivan in her room.
Holden as the aging southern father with a fondness for talking about the Civil War is quite good. He has a commanding stage presence, perhaps too much so at times. There are moments when it appears he confusions shouting with acting. On the other hand, there is a tender, soft spoken scene in which, after much contention, he praises Sullivan's work.
Brosnan is also solid as the loving, compassionate mother who refuses to believe Helen is a locked chest that can never be opened. She brings a genuine, motherly sense of warmth to her performance.
This is a well-mounted and acted piece of theater that honors Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
Reserve seating online or by calling the box office at 356-5776 or purchase tickets at the door.

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