Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Westside Stage: Beaverton Civic Theatre

'The Miracle Worker' Works for BCT

15-year-old Hayley Rousselle gives a "flawless" performance as Helen Keller.

By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker

Beaverton Civic Theatre’s second show of the season, “The Miracle Worker,” opened to a full house last Friday – and garnered a much-deserved standing ovation at the end of Act III.

 The classic play is favored by high schools and community theater groups primarily because of the power of the story but also, in part, because it can be done with minimal sets in a restricted space. The show rises (or falls) on the strength of its cast, with few external bells and whistles to augment the individual performances. Director Doreen Lundberg has assembled a wonderful cast and draws uniformly skillful performances from her leads and supporting actors.

Tonja Schreiber (left) as Annie Sullivan
“The Miracle Worker” revolves around the dramatic interaction of a young Boston-Irish teacher, Annie Sullivan, and her charge, ten-year old Helen Keller, who is locked within herself by a lifetime of blindness and deafness. Tonja Schreiber (“Annie”) shows impressive power in her portrayal of the fiercely determined neophyte teacher, fresh out of school herself and sent to 1880’s Alabama to work with the most challenging subject imaginable. Her task is complicated by the good-hearted but obstructive indulgence of Helen’s family, who have made no effort to discipline or control their daughter. Schreiber manages to convey the obstinate determination of the young teacher while revealing the self-doubt that plagues her character as she battles on in her quest to liberate Helen from the prison of her disability. Schreiber also shows admirable consistency and restraint in her Irish accent – it is subtle enough not be distracting or comically stereotypical.

Rousselle embodies the willful Keller.
Fifteen-year-old Hayley Rousselle gives, to our eyes, a flawless performance as young Helen Keller. Although the challenging role may appear to be almost entirely physical, Rousselle captures, in addition, the keen intelligence trapped inside Helen’s almost impermeable shell. Through 2 ½ hours of nearly constant presence on the stage, Rousselle is able to faithfully express for the audience a sense of what it must have been like for the confused, willful, and often terrified Helen Keller before she learned to communicate with others.

 Despite the story’s inevitable focus on the two main characters, “The Miracle Worker” is by no means a two-person show. At the point that Annie Sullivan came into her life, Helen was not, in fact, a blank slate – her persona had been shaped by her family’s loving but fruitless efforts to help her. At the story’s beginning, the parents are emotionally exhausted by years of false hopes raised by quacks and ineffectual doctors. Don Bellairs (Captain Keller) is, on the surface, a classically domineering Southern patriarch – but time and again he exposes his core of solid marshmallow by yielding to Sullivan’s demands. Even in his troubled relationship with his son James, he reveals his love for his family and makes confused but sincere efforts to get it right. Bellairs is so convincing in expressing this duality that one suspects that these qualities, like his Southern accent, are real.

Don Bellairs as Captain Keller.

Valarie Griffiths Brown portrays Kate Keller (Helen’s mother) as heart-breakingly optimistic. Despite being worn by years of attempts to cope with the extraordinary demands of raising young Helen, she immediately opens herself up to Annie Sullivan’s unorthodox methods. Brown captures the archetypal “steel magnolia” – appearing to yield to her husband while using her quiet determination to preserve her family.

 After seeing Scott Kelly (James Keller) in several BCT comedy productions, it was nice to see him in a serious dramatic role. Helen’s stepbrother James occupies a tough place in the family dynamic – he carries the burden of being the eldest son, desperate in his inability to live up to his father’s expectations, bitterly unwilling to embrace his stepmother as a surrogate parent, and resentful of the family’s focus on Helen and her special needs. Kelly effectively conveys the challenges inherent in his awkward position, and allows the audience to empathize with him despite his oft-sardonic manner.

 There were a few small opening night glitches, including the occasional muffed line. More important, there were some problems with the audibility of recorded sound bites. Since Annie’s back story is heavily dependent on the sound bites, we hope that these problems will be quickly addressed.

 Over the past couple of years, we have seen steady progression in Beaverton Civic Theatre’s offerings – and “The Miracle Worker” is another solid step toward excellence in local community theater.

“The Miracle Worker” is playing through May 13th at the Beaverton City Library auditorium. Performances are at 8:00 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, 2:00 p.m. on Sunday.