The much-missed Anne Bancroft, who captured both the Tony and Academy Awards for her unforgettable portrayal of Helen Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, in the Broadway and film versions of The Miracle Worker, is a pretty tough act to follow. Happily, Tara Battani is up to the task, providing a convincing characterization in the production currently playing at Actors Co-op in Hollywood.
William Gibson’s 1959 piece tells the inspirational story of the feisty young teacher, Annie Sullivan, and her efforts to break through to nine-year-old Helen Keller, whose inability to see or hear has earned her mother’s endless indulgence and transformed her into a stubborn, willful little monster. With tough love and unending patience, Annie finally gets the child to realize that the gestures she’d been making into her hands for months actually spell words — words that can help her to escape the prison of her body and communicate with the outside world.
In the film version, especially, that’s one of those “emotional release” moments (i.e., bawl your eyes out). But the film was made in 1962, and it’s 2013. How does such a sequence work with the modern audience? I surveyed the audience and was pleased to see a lot of people doing the “oh, I’ve got something in my eye” routine.
Battani earned the emotional response, to be sure, but Danielle Soibelman at least splits the credit with her for her affecting performance as Helen. This is such delicate territory — the character has become so iconic that audiences will watch carefully for any note of exaggeration or absurd pathos, but Soibelman steers clear of that territory. If this is what you were waiting for, yes, the dining room battle sequence is here, and yes — it’s done with spectacular accuracy and coordination, down to the last spoon.
The actors portraying the other important players also do well. Bruce Ladd’s Captain Keller is appropriately blustery, which makes his later remorse all the more affecting. And as his young wife, Kate, Catherine Gray does well by the then-controversial portrayal of a nineteenth-century Southern wife who becomes spontaneously emancipated via the love of her child.
As James Keller, the “outcast” son, Tony Christopher imbues him with a solid presence — a young man whose sardonic outlook masks his desperate need for approval. I don’t know how it worked on Broadway, but in the film version, this story arc always felt perfunctory. Here, Christopher’s take on the character encourages audience engagement.