- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Olney Theatre Center opens its splendid new Mainstage theater with a perfectly respectable production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker,” starring adult actress Carolyn Pasquantonio as Helen Keller as a child and MaryBeth Wise as her fiery, opinionated young teacher Annie Sullivan.

The emotional impact of Annie Sullivan’s ferocious determination to unlock Helen Keller’s mind and give the deaf and blind child language with which to communicate with the world has not dimmed since Mr. Gibson wrote the drama in 1959.

You would have to have a snowball for a heart not to get choked up at the end of the play, when Annie’s incessant finger-spelling finally pays off and Helen gets the connection, equating the cool liquid spilling over her hands at the pump with the word “water.”

In this moment, you can see not only Helen’s mind opening up, but also how hungry she is for knowledge. Her fingers can barely keep up with her brain as she touches objects and people, asking Annie for the word and immediately understanding. Learning has never looked more beautiful.

If the production were filled with an abundance of such moments, Olney’s “The Miracle Worker” would be a must-see. Director Jim Petosa envisioned the staging from Helen’s point of view — that is, a world conceived by someone who cannot see it or has limited spatial sense. James Kronzer’s set design utilizes black panels covered in spider’s web patterns that slide in and out, varying the space without actually defining it.

For all the nebulousness of her world, Helen is sharply etched, a hellion with a rainbow array of wild behavior. In Miss Pasquantonio’s violently physical portrayal, Helen is someone who may be visually and aurally impaired but who remains acutely aware of what is happening. Highly manipulative and canny, she is spoiled rotten by the members of her family, who cater to her out of love and pity.

Enter Annie Sullivan, damaged goods herself, having grown up in a Boston almshouse with her younger brother. Annie has eye trouble (her impoverished background led to eye disease) and “I” trouble: She is possessed of a robust ego. She will not take no for an answer, insisting that she can reach Helen through hard work and establishing supremacy over her pupil.

Together, they engage in a battle of wits. It is out-and-out war, as seen in the dynamic breakfast-table scene in which Annie is determined to get her young charge to eat off her own plate and with the proper utensils, even if it takes until dinner time.

Miss Pasquantonio is gifted in conveying the outward manifestations of deafness and blindness but is not convincing as a child monstrously frustrated by her limitations. There is a certain maturity to her, and the same goes for Miss Wise’s portrayal of Annie, who is not supposed to be much more than a girl herself.

Miss Wise projects sophistication and wisdom, and the whole idea of two young people leading each other to knowledge gets lost. You never get the sense of a deep, symbiotic connection between Helen and Annie, and so much of the emotional intimacy is compromised.

Helen Hedman makes a keenly sensitive Kate Keller, a devoted mother desperate to reach her daughter before it is too late. James Slaughter also brings softness and a genteel likability to the role of Captain Keller, and Max Rosenak is vivid as the put-upon and resentful son James.

You would think Olney would have come up with something more exciting to inaugurate the new space than an old chestnut like “The Miracle Worker,” which receives a production that is more workmanlike than miraculous.

WHAT: “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center for the Arts, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Sundays and Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through September 11.

TICKETS: $29 to $39

PHONE: 301/924-3400

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