backstage (2006-45)

Another Year, Another Classic

TSC tackles another canonical great with Miracle Worker

by Kevin Crowe

In 1959, long before Patty Duke was making appearances on Hawaii Five-O and Frasier , she was on Broadway, playing the part of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who grew up in Tuscumbia, Ala. in the latter part of the 19th century. It’s a story that’s become classic theater, because it’s so powerful. But it works only if the acting is done right. And anyone who has played Helen knows that it’s ridiculously easy to do it poorly.

It’s a challenging role for any actor, yet alone a 15-year-old. There’s nothing but room for error when an actor channels Helen Keller, but Katherine Moore, who has worked with the Tennessee Stage Company since the age of 12, handles the role beautifully. When she’s onstage, her eyes tend to jot back and forth aimlessly, as if they’re not picking up any sensory data at all. Both eyes wonder, never making any perceptible contact with the stage, the cast or the audience. Yet her face carries all the emotion—the warmth and fear and curiosity of this surprisingly precocious girl—that cannot actually be voiced by a deaf-mute.

The eyes aren’t dead, but frantically moving, searching for something that isn’t there.

During rehearsals, to help train her eyes, Moore wore an eye mask, allowing her to focus solely on the physical movements, to help her perfect Helen Keller’s walk, which is the equivalent of reading the stage like Braille.

Playing the part of Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, is Jenny Ballard, who made her directorial debut earlier this year with The Taming of the Shrew at Shakespeare on the Square. Onstage, Ballard exudes confidence, which shouldn’t come as a surprise if you saw her performance in Henry V earlier this year. Her accent is spot-on, exactly what you’d imagine a 19th-century Massachusetts girl of Irish heritage to sound like. That is, if we had any preconceived notions of what that’s supposed to sound like.

Let’s call it American Irish, which is still lyrical enough to be endearing.

We learn that Sullivan was once blind herself, and after many surgeries, she has minimal vision. By helping Helen find a language, perhaps the teacher is helping both of them to make sense of their world. At times, there is a flicker of joy when teacher and student are engaged in what appears to be a helpless cause. Enough for Sullivan to soldier on.

Ballard’s no-nonsense approach to the role pays off when a delightfully mischievous Helen decides to take her new teacher to task. The two play off of one another so well that, at times, the drama becomes something akin to slapstick—but only briefly.

“I have nothing else to do,” Sullivan says defiantly, “and nowhere to go.”

How do you punish Helen Keller?

You rearrange the furniture!

Yeah, it’s one of those tasteless, sophomoric jokes that will often be told among drunken partygoers. But onstage, when the dishes are flying at Theatre Knoxville Downtown as Annie Sullivan and Helen fight around the dinner table, there’s quite a bit of truth in that silly joke.

If nothing else, this is a play about rebuilding, as Helen learns to conjure a language in total darkness, starting from nothing. For Helen, something as simple as rearranging the furniture destroys her entire worldview.

Although the world is full of suffering , the real Helen Keller once wrote, it is full also of the overcoming of it.

The Tennessee Stage Company’s executive director, Tom Parkhill, who plays Helen’s father, has been instrumental in bringing timeless theater to life in Knoxville. For the past 16 years, the TSC has been our prime mover of Shakespeare, known to perform the Bard’s greatest hits every summer.

Now in its third year, TSC’s Timeless Works series has devoted itself to performances that continue to stand the test of time. After performing nothing but comedies in its first three years, beginning with Harvey in ’03, followed by The Philadelphia Story and The Foreigner , the Timeless Works series has moved into serious drama, showcasing the depth of talent at TSC.

Parkhill’s confidence both onstage and behind the scenes has fueled some great theater for nearly two decades. And now, with talents like Ballard eager to sit on the director’s chair, we can expect more of the same from TSC.

And, with any luck, freakishly gifted youngsters like Moore will only get better, year after year.

What: The Tennessee Stage Company presents The Miracle Worker