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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 10.15.2009

 

The Light of Language

Young actor shines at Cottage Theatre

by suzi steffen

Sentimental? Yes. Done a thousand times? Yes. Still, despite the folderol of the script, The Miracle Worker usually packs a punch — if the production manages to find a good Helen Keller.

That’s tough. Helen was 6 years old when the events of the play took place, and no 6-year-old could stand up to the rigors of this part. In the movie, of course, a 15-year-old Patty Duke (who had played the role on Broadway) represented young Helen, and Anne Bancroft also reprised her Broadway role as Annie Sullivan. It’s a powerful movie, despite mid-century longeurs and the sticky, overbearing crescendo that combines an intellectual breakthrough with nigh-on spiritual ecstasy.

Helen (Kyra Siegel) and Annie Sullivan (Pamela Lehan-Siegel). Courtesy Cottage Theatre.

At Cottage Theatre, the 10-year-old playing Helen Keller does far more than a viable job. She’s simply amazing, well worth the ticket price and long playing time. A mother-daughter team play Helen (Kyra Siegel) and tutor Annie  Sullivan (Pamela Lehan-Siegel), who became close friends and companions long after the struggle depicted in this play. 

Short plot summary: As an 18-month-old, Helen Keller, a daughter in a Confederate-happy household still mourning the loss of the Civil War, contracts some illness that take away her sight and hearing. She grows up wild, furious that she can’t communicate and indulged by her father (Dave Kessler), mother (Sue Schoeder-White) and half-brother James (Max Maltz). Just when it seems there are no other options but to put her in an asylum, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, just recovering from an eye operation, comes to help Helen learn some  kind of language. 

Thanks to Kyra Siegel’s ability to play the brilliant, frustrated, curious and silent Helen, it’s almost possible to overlook the wandering half-Southern accents of those playing the Kellers and some embarrassingly bad performances in bits about Annie’s history and memories. Mother-daughter intimacy probably made some of the scenes — Annie and Helen’s remarkable, lengthy, intense physical struggle in the dining room, for instance — easier for this pair, as I’m sure did their dance and theatrical experiences. (Lehan-Siegel is the co-artistic director of Dance Theatre of Oregon, along with her husband Marc Siegel.) 

But Siegel also convincingly portrays Helen’s love and need for her mother, her clever manipulation of her father and her absolute misery at not being able to tell others what she wants and who she is. 

William Gibson’s script unfortunately encourages too much celebration at the climax, which can easily lead to overacting and a near ruining of surprise. Siegel and Lehan-Siegel mostly pull off their parts, and if the others could just hold back a little bit, the audience would get more of an emotional payoff. 

Of course, almost everyone leaves the theater crying. Even when you know it’s coming, even if you’ve seen it two or 10 or 50 times, that final scene at the water pump shocks and thrills the audience. Most of us will never remember learning what words mean, how to speak, how to understand what to call each thing we see, smell, touch or taste — but watching Helen light up? That’s gorgeous.

Miracle Worker continues at Cottage Theatre in Cottage Grove through Oct. 25. Tix at www.cottagetheatre.org or 942-8001.