By Merle Exit
Get your tickets quickly, because this weekend is your last chance to see some astounding performances in the Queens Theatre’s revival of William Gibson’s classic play “The Miracle Worker.”
Ayla Schwartz, the 10-year-old actor who portrays Helen Keller, is so flawless at staying in character as blind and deaf while conveying the tumult of emotions of an isolated young girl struggling to relate to the world that you would never know that this is her professional debut.
If Tonys were given for Off-Broadway theater, Schwartz would win it by a landslide.
That is not to say that Betsy Hogg’s portrayal of Helen’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, is any less remarkable. Hogg herself has been acting since the age of 9, and it shows.
Director Brant Russell chose a perfect pair to work off of each other’s difficult character roles.
“The Miracle Worker” is the true story of Helen Keller, a girl rendered blind and deaf by an illness at 19 months old, and the success of her teacher, Anne Sullivan, in breaching her isolation more than five years later and helping her to learn to communicate.
The play begins at the point when 7-year-old Hellen’s parents, Kate (Holly Ann Butler) and Arthur (Mike Boland) must decide whether or not to institutionalize her. They speak with Doctor Anagos, the headmaster of the Perkins Institute for the Blind where 20-year-old Anne was trained, and he recommends the new graduate for the difficult assignment which will forever bond her with Helen.
While Schwartz and Hogg are a dynamic pairing and a thrill to watch, the striking performances of the supporting players make it clear that director Brant Russell wanted to expand the show beyond the two main characters to emphasize how dealing with disabilities can affect an entire family.
Helen’s much-older half-brother James (Connor Lawrence) clearly resents the lack of attention from his father, who is now in his second marriage.
Helen’s mother Kate, who has recently given birth, struggles to care for the new infant while trying to manage an impulsive 7-year-old who demands as much attention as the newborn.
Capt. Arthur Keller, a retired Civil War officer turned newspaper editor who demands immediate obedience, is nonetheless a loving father whose daughter’s affliction clearly pains his heart. But he still tries to dominate her new teacher, complicating her progress.
Arthur’s sister, Aunt Ev (Sarah Folkins), is kind and concerned, but her compassion for Helen leads her to short-sighted indulgence, giving the rambunctious girl treats to quiet her down.
Three “trials” of Anne and Helen take place in the plot, one of which centers around the dining room table. There are efforts to teach her to eat properly by wearing a napkin and using utensils rather than her hands and break her of the habit of simply helping herself to the food on anyone’s plate.
A second trial centers on Anne teaching her sign language by having Helen hold or touch something as she presses the sign-language spelling of it into her hand. These attempts were mostly done just outside the home, including the iconic scene by the water pump when Helen finally grasps that the signs have meaning.
The third struggle and breakthrough comes after Anne begs to use a shack near the home where she can teach Helen away from any family members, so their judgments of how she does this and Helen’s reactions don’t interfere.
Anne and Helen went on to become lifelong collaborators and companions, and Helen actually moved to Forest Hills with Anne and her husband in 1917 and lived there until 1938. But you only have one more weekend to see Schwartz and Hogg portray them in Corona at the Queens Theatre.
American Sign Language Interpretation and Audio Description will be available for the performances on Saturday, May 20, at both 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. A discussion with the actors will follow the 2 p.m. performance.
“The Miracle Worker”
Where: Queens Theatre, 14 United Nations Ave S in Corona
When: Thursday, May 18, 2 p.m.; Saturday, May 20, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 21, 3 p.m.