William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” works its will on an audience every time the play asks viewers to put themselves in the shoes of two extraordinary characters — deaf and blind Helen Keller, to whom the world is an opaque mystery, and Annie Sullivan, the teacher who opens up Helen’s perceptions through language.
The Coterie production of this piece is an affecting, streamlined affair that runs less than 90 minutes. Director Jeff Church has stripped the play down to its dramatic essentials and turns it into a fast-moving quick-sketch version of the three-act original.
It’s an unadorned production in terms of design. The simple costuming and minimal scenery are thoughtfully executed and place the actors squarely at the center of the story. And the actors are very good.
The show is anchored by Vanessa Severo, who brings an elegant gravitas to the stage in her beautifully rendered performance as Annie, and young Josephine Pellow, whose Helen is just the right mix of vulnerability and raw aggression.
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The centerpiece of the show is the “food fight,” in which Annie orders everyone except Helen out of the dining room so that she can teach Helen the proper way to use a plate and fork and how to fold a napkin. It’s a titanic wrestling match, which the actresses perform with a physical conviction that makes it utterly riveting.
The sequence was staged by associate director Daria LeGrand, who once played Helen. Church also credited LeGrand with staging the teaching scenes between Annie and Helen.
Church also decided to make the show as accessible as possible to deaf and blind viewers in two ways: by having American Sign Language interpreters at every performance (on opening night they were Lisa Lehnen and Juliana Ladd) and by assigning supporting actors to provide “audio interpretation,” which are oral descriptions of the onstage action in sections of the play.
There were moments on opening night when the timing between the actors with spoken dialogue and the audio interpreters was imprecise, leading to a few noisy, chaotic moments. For the most part, however, Church’s approach is surprisingly powerful.
Performances from the multi-ethnic supporting cast range from excellent to adequate. Standouts are Walter Coppage and Jennifer Mays as Helen’s parents. (The show offers the novelty of Coppage, who is African-American, playing a 19th-century planter in Alabama.)
Also in the mix are Tony Pulford as James, Helen’s half-brother, and Dianne Yvette as Aunt Ev. Smaller roles are filled by Ai Vy Bui and Michael Ray.
Church’s approach makes no effort to conceal the show’s artificial conventions — we can see backstage all the way to the wall, and the scenic elements are a mix of the suggestive and the literal. But he has also elevated the story’s emotional content. Thanks to Severo and Pellow, the final moment is achingly poignant.
“The Miracle Worker” runs through Oct. 25 at the Coterie at Crown Center. Call 816-474-6552 or go to www.thecoterie.org.