Helen Keller Jokes: GCT's "The Miracle Worker" is what it is

Posted by Chris Davis on Fri, Jan 31, 2014 at 1:36 PM

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The internet is full of meanness. One of the first viral videos I can remember watching was a clip from a community theater production of The Miracle Worker where the sighted actor playing the part of Helen Keller, who was blind, deaf, and mute, falls off the stage while pretending to be blind, deaf, and mute. The video’s still out there— EVERYWHERE— accumulating hits too. It’s awful. It's mean. and it's also funny as hell.

Don’t judge.


The Helen who fell

Thing is, when I watch the above-mentioned video, I’m not laughing at an actual impaired person. And I’m not really laughing at the gravitational misfortune of a child playing an impaired person either. I'm laughing at how simulacra can be so very troublesome. And I even suspect (and I am not alone) that the long tradition of Helen Keller jokes, as loathsome as they are, has a lot less to do with marginalizing real people who struggle to overcome great challenges, than with the ways we portray and fetishize disability in popular culture. I wade hip-deep into these treacherous waters in prelude to what some will surely perceive as an awful confession. Although nobody fell from the stage, The Germantown Community Theatre’s production of The Miracle Worker made me cringe occasionally, and it made me laugh in some inappropriate places. Here’s the crucial context: In spite of space limitations, and some directorial inconsistencies, It’s a pretty solid production. But a serious scene, like the one where Helen’s mother discovers that her infant daughter is blind and unresponsive, easily becomes titter-worthy when underscored with spooky soap opera/horror show music, and that music can make a performer’s acting choice seem wildly melodramatic, no matter how humane.

Ellen Saba is a strong choice for Mrs. Kate Keller. She is a grounding presence, and the play demands that of the character, who is, in many ways, a secondary protagonist, awakening to a woman’s place in the bellicose world of men. Sydney Bell, last seen at GCT as the bad seed in the musical Ruthless, and ShoWagon actor Lena Wallace are as good together as any two performers to tackle the iconic parts of Hellen Keller and Annie Sullivan. I’m not being especially original when I note that The Miracle Worker has always been a handful of great roles wrapped in a structurally messy melodrama. If Helen’s father Captain Keller occasionally sounds like Foghorn Leghorn wrote his dialogue, it’s hardly the fault of blustery actor Ken Mitten. That’s the part.

GCT’s cramped stage with its limited entrance and exit options aren’t helpful. The set is too literal and too inflexible to effectively account for locations as different as a house, a cabin, a school, and a train. And few experiences are more nerve wracking than watching actors playing visually impaired children awkwardly exiting by way of GCT’s narrow stage-front stairs. There were moments when I worried that this might be another viral video waiting to happen.

Director Marler Stone has some real personal experience with disability and with passionate teachers who work to give language to the hearing impaired. His aunt was deaf and his mother taught at the Mississippi School for the Deaf in Jackson. That might have something to do with why the scenes between Annie and Helen are so vivid and everything else is so fuzzy.

Weaker portions of The Miracle Worker become an accidental clown show. Captain Keller, for example, is a weak-willed blowhard still fighting the Civil War over dinner. He doesn’t really care if his daughter learns as long as she’s tamed, and his most corrosive decisions are born of a reflexive need to maintain traditional gender roles, and his belief that Annie Sullivan is a disrespectful girl with too much book learning but not enough sense. In contemporary terms the good Captain is a one man Tea Party, and a shining example of how reflexive, dogmatic Conservatism is always doomed because, by its very nature, it’s always stuck fighting old battles while the world turns, and everyone else moves on. The clownishness of the role is especially clear in productions such as this one, where family relationships are thinly established and Keller exists almost exclusively as Sullivan’s somewhat ridiculous nemesis.

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Earlier I mentioned some over-the-top underscoring that turned a serious scene into an accidental hoot, and I’d like to come back to that for a minute. Marler Stone, who has really come into his own staging memorable productions of shows like Talley’s Folly and Death of a Salesman, has often turned to his son Matthew Stone to create original musical compositions to complement and comment on the dramatic material. It’s a good and admirable urge but results have been mixed, and in this scene they are just this side of catastrophic. The problem is mostly one of consistency since the music arises from nowhere to become a principal actor, and then it’s gone, and never again allowed to be more than fifth business. That same kind of inconsistency extends to so many elements of William Gibson’s script, and the production generally.

There’s a lot of meanness on the Internet. Hopefully, this review won’t add to the pile because the story of the Miracle Worker is no joke, and neither are the performances at the heart of this fine, if occasionally muddled production. But, as I mentioned, I did sometimes laugh in the wrong places. I’d only like to suggest, for others who may respond similarly, that, given the too-familiar material, and other circumstances, the occasional cringe or snort may not be quite as inappropriate as it seems. Plan on feeling guilty anyway.

The Miracle Worker closes this weekend. Details, here.

Comments (6)

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I cheered my fingers off.

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Posted by NellieStarbuck on 01/31/2014 at 3:20 PM

The repeating of this tale may have become threadbare with overtelling, but whereas my juvenile performance of Captain Keller in the 1972 production of The Miracle Worker at Circuit Playhouse in Memphis may have been risible, nevertheless, it is where I met Susie Howe (Kate), and that made it all worthwhile.

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Posted by Chris Ellis on 02/01/2014 at 1:16 AM

I have not seen the production and probably won't have the opportunity. I just want to mention that using music in theater productions not musicals or musical revues is often a dicey and difficult proposition. Straight stage plays by excellent playwrights rarely need such devices. Perhaps, in the modern era for a waning audience it's thought that bringing in that element might help the entertainment value of the piece and thereby increasing the audience. But, I really don't buy into that.

I recently watched online a filmed version of a play I saw on Broadway back in the day when I lived and acted in NYC. It was 1980. The play was The Gin Game with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. The taped stage piece had no music during the play itself. Though it did use music in the opening and closing credits. The play was brilliantly acted and wonderfully written. And was a delight to watch. With the right material, a talented cast, and a director who understands how to work with actors and stage a production, you have all the elements you typically to offer up a compelling performance. When one of those elements is missing or sub-par, then the results can often be spotty.

Bad, or even good music will not help if another element is lacking or sub-par. In a situation where space is a problem in the staging, and the writing is not suitable for a modern audience, during a modern theatrical stage experience, then music, good or bad, will not enhance the experience. Some plays I've seen performed in town were poor choices from a script standpoint, because the text is dated and out of place in a modern context. Obviously, some classics work using older language, in example, a Eugene O'Neill play. Or Moliere, Pinter, etc. Or Shakespeare, which many directors, sometimes poorly, often with genius, switch suit to patter for a modern audience.

Watching The Miracle Worker as a film with Patty Duke and Ann Bancroft will always be a stirring, bravura experience because we are celebrating the performances of stellar actors in a given era, regardless of the story. Doing it live, in the modern era, may evoke some of the accidental images and "tittering" Chris wrote about. In a very sensitive and empathetic manner, I might add. Props to you for the tenor and sensitivity of your review, Chris.

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Posted by Daniel Martine on 02/01/2014 at 4:18 AM

I have seen the production of Miracle Worker at GCT numerous times since my child is in the show. When I sit in the audience, go to the restroom or work concessions, I never tell anyone that my child is in the show. Of the 8 shows that I have witnessed, no one person has had any negative comments regarding this production. All have exited the theatre with tears and have expressed their appreciation of a fine show that they just watched. It is sad that a reviewer cannot simply review the show that was seen instead of feeling the need to bring in elements of youtube and theatre size to their their critique. GCT has always been small and I don't think they plan on extending the size of the stage for any production, so stage size is always considered and must be taken into consideration with any production GCT chooses to put on their season. The actors in this show have been working since November to make it a great piece of work that they can all be proud of and it is just that. Kudos to the director, cast, and crew for their hard work in making the Miracle Worker a great show and NO ONE has had anything negative to say about your efforts except Chris Davis.

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Posted by Lisa Latham on 02/01/2014 at 10:23 AM

I saw the production recently, and I was moved by it. There is so much heart on stage during this show that it would be remiss to say it was anything short of wonderful. While at times the direction was misguided, overall the story was strong and the characters clearly unique. The actors playing Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller were particularly memorable. It's a shame the audience was not sold out when I saw it--many more people in town need to see this show.

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Posted by MemphisBird on 02/01/2014 at 1:37 PM

@Lisa, You are right, there's much to admire and praise, especially Annie & Helen. But so you know, nobody sings at intermission. There are always undercover parents in the crowd and they look just like you and me.


@MemphisBird. In the unlikely chance there's anybody left in Memphis who hasn't already seen the Miracle Worker at least once they only need to wait a few minutes. They're erecting a water pump on stage at Hutchison as I type. And when it's gone there will be another, and another, and another. Which may have something to do with empty seats.

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Posted by Chris Davis on 02/01/2014 at 4:21 PM
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