The Miracle Worker works, but it's nothing special

William Gibson, who died recently at the age of 94, is best known for his play The Miracle Worker, and for making a star of the luminous Anne Bancroft, who played the lead on Broadway and later in the movie. The play tells the story of Annie Sullivan, a young Irish teacher who rescued blind and deaf Helen Keller from an angry, isolated childhood. In reality, these two women went on to become devoted lifelong companions, their intertwined story unspooling in a peculiarly American mix of sincerity and showmanship: At one point, needing money, they performed on the vaudeville circuit. Keller became a socialist and suffragist; she was a tireless advocate for the blind and helped found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Seen from a contemporary perspective, the play shows its age in spots. The subplot concerns a psychodrama within the Keller family. Helen's surly half-brother, James, must learn to stand up to their domineering father; he does so finally by defending Sullivan's teaching tactics to the skeptical and angry old man. But this theme feels sketchy and only half worked-out. And every time Sullivan is alone, she experiences a flashback to her time in the poorhouse and hears the voice of the little brother who died there. The device becomes predictable — and it didn't help that on the night I attended this Denver Center Theatre production, the sound was blurry and I couldn't make out the boy's words.

What Gibson did get right was the intensity of Sullivan's struggle to lead her charge out of darkness and into the light of language. He showed Keller, revered American icon, as an almost feral child, perpetually indulged by an old and conventional Southern family that could think of no other way to deal with her. This Helen Keller is dirty and undisciplined. She hurls objects and can attack without provocation, kicking, pinching and biting. The miracle is that the twenty-year-old Sullivan, schooled by her own partial-sightedness and hard upbringing, is the one person on earth who can understand and deal with her.

Two scenes from The Miracle Worker have taken their place in twentieth-century dramatic history. The first — one of the gutsiest ever written — is a long, wordless struggle in which Sullivan forces Keller to sit at the breakfast table and eat with a spoon. As a young girl, I had the privilege of seeing the Anne Bancroft/Patty Duke production, and this scene has been lodged in my mind ever since. It was so wild, so uninhibited and near the edge of control that you honestly couldn't tell, moment to moment, who would be the victor. It was like watching Jacob wrestling with his angel, refusing to loose his hold until he gained the creature's blessing. What Sullivan wants is to ensoul Keller — and finally the blessing comes, as the child obediently folds her napkin. The second scene occurs when Keller, who has been learning to sign words without understanding them, connects the letters Sullivan has spelled out time and again on her palm with the wetness flowing from the pump and attempts to mouth the word "water."

This production is skillfully done and very pleasing to look at. Set designer Tom Buderwitz has created several acting areas, and the action flows seamlessly among them; the space is dominated by a dark floor on which phrases from Sullivan's actual letters appear to be written in light. It's a nice conceit, though I'm not sure it adds significance. The costumes — by Angela Balogh Calin — are gorgeous. All of the acting is good, from Rachel Fowler's empathetic Kate Keller to Wendelin Harston's wise, quiet servant, Viney. Kate Hurster is a strong and appealing Sullivan, and Daria LeGrand a game and gutsy little Helen Keller. But director Art Manke has made this production too pretty, too much of a nineteenth-century Southern set piece. I couldn't see a smidge of dirt on Keller's pretty dresses. The breakfast fight scene is engrossing without ever edging into danger. And though John Hutton is terrific as Captain Keller, his interpretation is more gruff teddy bear than overbearing paterfamilias.

Hutton, does, however, provide one of the evening's best moments — and, perhaps ironically, it's a silent one. Sullivan has just prevailed in yet another argument with the captain; they've reconciled and he is ready to escort her to dinner. But he's a Southern gentleman, and she must take his arm. The minute she's placed her hand beneath his elbow — after a second's hesitation — you can see the dignity and self-possession flow through his body again. There are many forms of ensoulment.