Miracle Worker

by William Gibson
February 10 - March 18, 2012


Compass Rose Theater’s The Miracle Worker
February 23, 2012 - Bay Weekly

Imagine for a moment that you can neither see nor hear, that you careen through life as an animal trapped in a silent, black maze.Omnipotent beings collude against your wild frustration until only your savagery can wear them down enough to earn you meager bribes and scraps of their exasperated affection. Such is the life of six-year-old Helen Keller.

In Compass Rose Theater’s The Miracle Worker, Annalie Ellis’ portrayal of pain and confusion is heartbreaking. I was carried away by this diminutive tween who broke her blank stare only once in two hours. (read more)

Helen and her teacher Annie Sullivan, Colleen Marie Arnold in this production, connect on a cerebral level with little window dressing.

To Helen’s parents (Chris Briante and Rebecca Dreyfuss) the possibility of her having a normal life is impossible. Long-suffering Kate (Dreyfuss), the second wife, has a way with her authoritarian husband who has already alienated his adult son James (Jonathan Ezra Rubin). This family dynamic surpasses mere crisis. It stews in controversy due to Rubin’s veiled insolence. The strength of this household is clearly Viney (Murjani Sowell), the even-tempered cook, maid and sitter. Rounding out the cast are Helen’s young playmates Prissy (Rachel Dylan Opert) and Martha (Kennedy Smith), Tim Wolf as the doctor and Annie’s teacher Anagnos, and Will Fritz as the voice of Annie’s dead brother Jimmy.

For a story heavy with tragic possibility, this one offers a surprising amount of humor. Opening night’s full house had rousing applause for the troupe, despite some muffed lines. The soundtrack is lifted from Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor’s classically infused Appalachian Waltz album, which is terrific, but some background birds and crickets could have spiced up the monotony of Annie’s soliloquies. The set and furnishings are minimal, but with an impressive pump whose inexhaustible supply of water fascinated all present.

Early in the play, Keller tells Annie that no one expects her to perform miracles, even for $25 a month. Yet she does. For just $5 more, you can see the miracle four student actors achieve with the seasoned guidance of pros. That’s what Compass Rose is all about: creating theater for the next generation. This show doesn’t disappoint. (read less)

The Miracle Worker at Compass Rose Theater
February 13, 2012 - MD Theatre Guide

A dramatic masterpiece takes the stage at Compass Rose Theater. The Miracle Worker tells the inspiring true story of Helen Keller’s discovery of language. Focusing around the tutor that comes from Boston to teach her, every moment that unfolds on the stage is spellbinding. The moments of fighting, the intense levels of tension, and the physical struggles between Annie and Helen are compelling and moving. The play moves quickly and in just two short hours you are mesmerized by what you are seeing.

Set in the 1880s at the Keller home in Alabama, Director Lucinda Merry-Browne crafts a world for her characters, focusing largely on the dialect and vernacular of the time period and location. Merry-Browne’s work is well displayed as all of the characters seem to master this proper southern sound in their words – particularly strong in Kate (Rebecca Dreyfuss) and Captain Keller (Chris Briante.) The direction given to these actors is superb. The sheer physical demands of the show are nothing short of taxing, especially between Annie (Colleen Marie Arnold) and Helen (Annalie Ellis) but they are exhilarating and breathtaking. And the pacing is perfect, the natural flow from one moment to the next is sublime – and before you know it -two hours have gone and the show has drawn to a close. A superior dramatic instance not to be missed. (read more)

The tension that is strung throughout the show burns with extraordinary brightness – slicing through each scene sharper than a knife. It is displayed most frequently between Captain Keller (Chris Briante) and his wife Kate (Rebecca Dreyfuss.) Briante and Dreyfuss are at constant vocals odds with each other, but their most profound moments occur in their silent moments – the way the grief and strain of raising such a child washes over their faces, and through their bodies. The anguish and uncertainty is painted so vividly in their expressions - begging for the audience to empathize with their plight. Briante is the boisterous harsh voice of hazy reason and Dreyfuss plays a brilliant foil to this with her demure but firm need to nurture her child. Her expressions of concern are heartbreaking – the years of stressing over a sick child written so clearly upon her face. They provide phenomenal performances throughout the play.

The most picturesque moment in the show comes when Annie (Colleen Marie Arnold) first meets Helen (Annalie Ellis.) It almost happens in slow motion – Ellis groping to feel Arnold’s face while Arnold sits patiently with a nervous but excited light in her eyes. It is a stunning moment to behold and makes every physical struggle between them that much more profound. These two young ladies work together to create staged perfection. Their physical struggles are brutal as Arnold tries to tame Ellis into submission; teaching her wrong from right, teaching her obedience. Their struggle in the dining room is frantic – tiresome and so engaging that you won’t be able to look away as Arnold struggles to lift Ellis and sit her down to eat while Ellis bites, kicks, and scrambles to escape her, crawling under the table, over top of it and flinging her mashed potatoes all across the room.

Annalie Ellis’ performance as Helen Keller is sensational. Ellis moves with uncertainty, fully embodying the notion of being blind and deaf. Her eyes stare vacantly ahead of her and her facial expressions belay everything. Her tantrums are extreme, slamming her fists and feet against the walls and floor, her body shaking with the anger of a small child who can’t have her way. When she interacts with Annie (Arnold) she is truly the lost child that the tutor believes her to be. Their “finger game” of using sign language to spell words is beautiful. The struggle that Arnold faces trying to make her understand, Ellis simply mimicking what is shown to her – building and building with each instance. It is astonishing and amazing as it builds to its peak and all falls into place.

This is a profound drama with a well-directed talented group of actors that is not to be missed this season. (read less)

Theater tackles Helen Keller play, cast learns sign language
February 9, 2012 - Capital Gazette

Annalie Ellis had the wool pulled over her eyes the moment she walked into Compass Rose Theater in Eastport.

Founder Lucinda Merry-Browne figured the only way Annalie could get an inkling of what it's like to be blind was to cover her eyes. The blindfold kept slipping off, so Merry-Browne pulled a snow hat over the 11-year-old's head and let her feel her way around the stage. (read more)

"It's very difficult to not be able to see anybody," said Annalie, a home-schooled Millersville resident. "At the same time, you have to know what's going on and you can't look at anybody's face."

It isn't the only challenge of portraying Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Keller was also deaf, meaning Annalie has been trying to figure out what that's like, too.

Part of the process involves learning sign language.

Merry-Browne, who is directing the play, brought in veteran instructor Anthy Lakis to teach American Sign Language to Annalie and anyone else in the cast who was interested. A group of five has spent more than 10 hours learning the alphabet. This is in addition to four weeks of intensive rehearsals. The two-act show opens tomorrow.

"I've never done a play like this," said Rachel Opert, 11, a fifth-grader at The Key School in Annapolis. "It's really fun and I've learned a lot. It's like a class."

Rachel plays one of two servant girls in the Keller household. Both learned to sign the alphabet, as did Annalie. "It must have been very hard (for Keller)," she said. "She's trapped in this world of darkness."

Colleen Marie Arnold, who plays Keller's teacher Anne Sullivan, and Rebecca Dreyfuss, who plays Keller's mother, also took signing lessons.

The only people who actually need to sign in the play are Annalie, Arnold and Dreyfuss.

Merry-Browne could have had them fake it, but that'd be in direct opposition to what she's trying to do with her theater. She wants everything to be as authentic as possible to enrich the experience of both the cast and audiences. Plus, having the actors learn to sign mirrors Keller's own journey.

"The whole purpose of this play is unlocking the gift of language," Merry-Browne said.

Her quest for authenticity extends to the use of real mashed potatoes for a food fight and a working 100-year-old water pump for a pivotal scene.

Merry-Browne also wants Compass Rose to be a teaching theater, so bringing in Lakis was a natural fit. The director was attracted to the play in the first place because of its emphasis on learning.

"It spoke very strongly to our mission to teach and to teach in a unique way," Merry-Browne said. "(Anne) never gave up. To me, the story is incredibly important."

This hasn't been lost on the performers.

Arnold echoed Merry-Browne's thoughts on Sullivan. The Laurel resident was initially nervous about playing Keller's teacher, but said the wealth of information that exists about her made the task easier.

"She had a hard life," Arnold said. "It was all or nothing for her."

The combination of the poignancy of the story, the sign language lessons and the extensive rehearsals have made the cast close.

"It's a really great experience," said Kennedy Smith, 9, a fourth-grader at West Annapolis Elementary School who plays the other servant girl in the play. "I love all the cast members. They feel like family." (read less)