Arena Stage in Washington DC wraps an innovative, inclusive revival of William Gibson's Helen Keller drama, The Miracle Worker, April 30 at the Fichandler stage.
In-the-round with Helen, teacher Annie Sullivan, Captain Keller and the script's other memorable characters, is a new "Chorus of Witnesses" that articulates the story -- and sometimes joins in -- using American Sign Language.
Previews for The Miracle Worker began March 10, with an official opening of March 17.
"For the bulk of the show they are seated in what we call 'pits' on the stage, and there are two positioned on each side," director Nick Olcott told Playbill On-Line. "They can turn into the action, face each other, or turn out to face the audience." Olcott said the chorus of signers sign not only the dialogue of characters, adopting the actors' roles, but they comment ironically on some of the action and even jump into the scenes, particularly in a stylized section where they represent the memories and voices in Annie's head.
Generally the roles are played along gender lines, but the crusty family aunt and the housekeeper are signed by men, the director said.
There is no special seating for hearing impaired theatregoers for the staging. "One of my goals was to make the production accessible to the deaf: every seat, every performance," Olcott said. "We did a lot of work on the lights and the angling of the interpreters. My goal was to not have the deaf patrons segregated to one part of the house. One of the wonders of the Arena is you not only experience the plays, you experience others experiencing the plays -- you interact with each other."
Olcott has also added a prologue for the chorus and Annie Sullivan, drawing on the published play's epigraph concerning Annie and Helen's later-life musings about what a "soul" is.
Director Olcott's regional work includes Sylvia for Philadelphia Theatre Company and All in the Timing and Taking Steps for Delaware Theatre Company. He is associate artistic director of Round House Theatre, a small professional theatre in Silver Spring, MD.
The play has its roots in a 1957 TV production by Gibson, telling the story of the deaf and blind Keller and her headstrong and once-blind new teacher, Annie Sullivan. He later adapted that script for the Broadway stage, where the 1959 production would run 719 performances and inspire a 1962 movie that starred Anne Bancroft as Annie and Patty Duke as Helen. Both actresses won Academy Awards for the film (later remade into a TV movie that starred Duke as Annie and Melissa Gilbert as Helen).
The Arena stage company includes Shira Grabelsky as Helen, Kelly C. McAndrew as Annie and former "Love Boat" actor Fred Grandy (who was also a Congressman, 1987-1995) as Captain Keller. Also in the cast are John Kim, Samarra Mbenga, Lynnie Raybuck, Dale Stein, Lynne E. Streeter, Frederick Strother, Christopher C. Walker and (in the signing chorus) Stella Antonio-Conley, Fred Michael Beam, Mike Deninger, Tyrone Giordano, Allen W. Neece III, Makela Spielman, Alexandria Wailes and Krista Leitch Walker.
The ASL script for the chorus was developed by Eric Malzkuhn.
Designers are Tony Cisek (sets), Rosemary Pardee (costumes), Allen Lee Hughes (lights), Scott Burgess (sound and composer).
Tickets are $27-$45. Arena Stage is at 1101 Sixth Street SW. For information, call (202) 488-3300 or try the web site at www.arenastage.org.
-- By Kenneth Jones