Tuesday, October 18, 2011
Theater review: The Miracle Worker at Creative Arts Theatre & School in Arlington
CATS has made a smart choice in this production.
It was not too long ago it seemed that Creative Arts Theatre & School in Arlington would be one of the first theaters to close its doors when the economy began to make parents rethink spending scant funds on theater classes for their kids. Changes in leadership as well as a facility badly in need of updates were just a few problems looming over the organization. However, if their production of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker (playing through October 23) is any indication of things to come, CATS has stabilized, restructured, and is ready to offer solid, family friendly, and affordable fare for entertainment and education.
** NOTE: The reviewed performance was a school matinee, which contained an additional 30 minutes of cut material **
In a year when seemingly multiple productions of shows abound (Josephs, Fantasticks, Godspells, Dollys, etc.) it can be tricky to figure out which will be the "good one" to spend those hard earned entertainment dollars on and feel that it is a smart choice. CATS production of Worker is helmed by director Sharon Veselic whose red pen deftly slices lots of pages off the book to create a more streamlined story that focuses on the A plot. With a rapid pace and performing as a one act, this version hits the highlights at a pleasing, if less deep speed. For those who have not seen a production of Worker before, this one will satisfy and perhaps whet the appetite for the larger issue.
What have been snipped away are mostly the familial relationships, and connections to scenes back outside of the house itself to the blind school. Veselic has kept the story to focus on Annie Sullivan, the stern teacher who brings language to the deaf, blind, and overprotected child named Helen Keller. Through Sullivan's ministrations, Keller becomes a disciplined child who is finally able to connect to the world around her. An intriguing real life figure, there are numerous films that document her amazing accomplishments.
The story focuses on the most direct attempts of Annie Sullivan, herself visually impaired, to teach Helen, often at odds with the overprotective family members who are unsure that such progress is possible, and that Sullivan's methods will work.
A sick Helen is visited by a kindly doctor, serviceably played by James Long, whose departure precedes the discovery that Helen is deaf. The plot moves forward a large space of time to see Annie Sullivan leave a blind school to accept her first assignment working for the Keller family.
Several girls make up the other students at the blind school. These young actresses have been well trained. Each is focused on the scene, and is believable in their lack of sight, earnest feelings for Annie, and are cohesive as a group. Veselic wisely avoids making things cutesy or overly sympathetic.
Sullivan arrives at the Keller household to be met by the stern and commanding Capt. Keller. Toni Billante's Keller is warmer than the role is usually played. Still the firm king of his castle, Billante is more easily persuaded into decisions. While the cuts in the script work against his stubbornness, Billante is able to make the balance between the cuts and the remaining plot work and is antagonistic enough to provide sufficient conflict. The kind touches add a nice fatherly warmth.
Laura Jones' Kate Keller is similarly trimmed away. At odds with what would be best for her child in trusting a strange new governess, and asserting her wishes into her husband's plans, Jones is relegated to becoming the first ally for Sullivan's advocacy. There are glimpses of her disagreements with Capt. Keller, and these moments play realistically as if there are many "closed door" moments when the two really hash things out. While it would be nice to see these moments, Jones provides a nice balance to Billante and does well establish the nervous trust in Sullivan's abilities.
As the brother to Helen, Andy Truelove also has a unique challenge playing what's left on the page. James Keller is often brusquely dismissed by the Captain and is often the frustrated comic relief of the piece. On the verge of manhood with ideas that conflict with those of his father, James is a challenging role. Truelove's portrayal, in combination with the cuts, makes James more of a bratty brother than sulky teen which works in this reduced production. Truelove does have a nice moment when he finally speaks up against the opinion of the Captain that shows the man within James ready to come out. This is a nice surprise and shows potential.
In supporting roles, Amanda Henderson plays the servant Viney with a consistent physical character that says lots by doing little. It is clear to see Viney's relationship with the family, and her opinions on what's going on. Also, as Annie's younger brother, Ivan Friend does well in his monologues. Christina Keil has a few brief moments as the snooty Aunt Ev but provides a nice dynamic to her scenes.
The leading ladies of this production are quite good and easily carry the production. As Annie Sullivan, Christina Cornevin delivers a consistent accent and character. Cornevin clearly conveys Sullivan's frustration and determination both physically and vocally. Similarly, Madison Gilbert is fearless in her performance as Helen Keller. Both ladies deal with the extreme physical needs of their roles; there's lots of fighting and interplay between the two. The highlight of the performance is the dinner scene that is a battle of wills between the two.
Veselic has staged an engaging scene, full of humor, determination and skillful storytelling. Gilbert is uninhibited and her confidence is apparent. At the performance reviewed, the student audience was focused and engaged by the couple, often reacting vocally as they saw what was to come. Students are notoriously honest when they do not like something or find it contrived; to win them over says quite a lot.
Technically, Keith Warren has a surprising number of costume changes when he could easily cut corners and have everyone in single outfits for the entire shortened piece. His choices are period appropriate, and the detailing adds nice touches. Philip Plowman's wigs are subtle and effective.
Richard Blake's set design is minimal, functional, and with Ana Petitt's light design, quite pretty. There are several levels to the Keller house with a central area on the stage surrounded by a wooden walkway. The central area doubles as the garden house and dining room. With stud walls cut at angles, large diagonal lines cross the space and catch Petitt's lights in very smart ways. Both are simple, clean designs that work very well. The original music by Neal Malley enhances without overdoing emotional manipulation, but a little less "Mockingbird" would be nice. A few voiceover tracks could use re-recording for flat line readings.
CATS has made a smart choice in this production. It showcases their new producer's capabilities, the training being provided to the numerous students in both acting and technical skills, and provides a quality family experience.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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