The Miracle Worker reminds one of the gift of consciousness.
Spoiler Caution: the following review assumes you are totally familiar with this classic play from 1960, as it is depicted in the 1962 film, or from television, and the ending is discussed.
Helen Keller’s story will always strike awe in hearts and minds. Everyone’s takeaway from that story might be a little different, but awesomeness is there, nonetheless. As a child in junior high school, the 1962 film was required viewing. As a grown man now, I still look at The Miracle Worker as an assignment on my desk, only now I am a grown up journalist. I have the fortunate position of giving you my personal impression of the work.
I think what I was scratching at back then has come to the surface, thanks to greater experience in life. But I will tell you, I think more adults were balling their eyes out at the end of the play, than children in my class decades ago. Let’s consider why.
But before we do, I want to acknowledge everyone’s great performance. Agatha Olson plays Helen, Amy Newman is her mother, Joshua Weinsten is the brother, Don Alder is the father, with Val Landrum in the central role of Annie Sullivan. Together, in a play that I think everyone cares about wholly, their rapport is excellent.
After the show, I struck up a conversation with a fellow who turned out to be a writer himself. His take focused basically on the awe of language and its power to give our world personalized meaning. It all makes sense in that famous moment when Helen finally understands water. She feels water flowing out of the pump and realizes that everything has a name, everything can be communicated. And that she is not alone. It is at this moment, at the water pump, that everyone’s eyes welled up. I was crying too. I could feel it all around me. I had to look around the sold out audience to be sure: every face expressed joyous sadness with furrowed brows, wet eyes, or lumpy throats.
Why is this scene so profound? For two hours, good entertainment threads our understanding of Helen and her family’s situation. We see Helen’s maniacal behavior. We’re given good bits of fodder between Helen’s father, a former confederate officer known as Captain, and Helen’s half-blind teacher from the North, Annie Sullivan. In this stage production, her self-doubt and great internal pressure to succeed is revealed with short daydreams and flashbacks of life in the deaf/blind institution, where Annie rose up as pupil to become teacher. Her teacher tells her that, “Language is the gateway through which knowledge enters the mind.”
The comic relief of smart-ass James, Helen’s half-brother and the Captain’s only son, shows how someone can take the world for granted. James’ life appears to be finely niched into assisting with the maintenance of their estate, as Helen is a constant fight — he finds it easy to detach from her. We get to know Helen from the illness that struck her at 18 months, and the opening scene where the mother, Kate claps in the deaf-blind baby’s face, hysterically coming to the realization of what-is.
Building the story, revealing all the frustrations, while keeping it humorous, is just effective storytelling. Annie teaches Helen to fold a napkin: this proves to Kate that the girl is humane inside. Captain acquiesces time and again to Annie’s demands for autonomy over the disabled girl, but only at the behest of Kate. It was a miracle enough that Annie managed to teach Helen to behave herself, but the great young teacher knew that only language could open the door to the whole world, for Helen. Her motivation appears more compassionate than anything else. Sure, the girl could be trained, like a dog, and she would be paid for that, but only when given knowledge could Helen be truly civilized, and I think, conscious of her actions.
The most dramatic and profound moment is saved for the end. It is also rather mundane: a girl at a pump spells out the word “water.” It is profound because we realize for ourselves that water is a miracle; language is a miracle; consciousness is a gift; and that gift is somehow unconscious to us.
This is exactly where personal consciousness departs and draws well below the subconscious. The proof was that everyone in the audience shed universal tears, even if their feelings were personal, they were shared feelings. Transpersonal consciousness is revealed in Helen Keller’s story. The miracle that I find so inspiring is the amazing unknowable beyond myself.
There really is no consensus on what consciousness is. One view may be that we’re just a bundle of sensations, derived from our senses. Consciousness and personality are no greater than this. But when you consider someone who must touch and smell their way through life, and what that would mean for that individual consciousness, and then you observe the great intelligence of that person, as we can reflect on history, then Helen Keller proves we are much greater than our limitations. For me, it reveals the fantastic power of consciousness, whatever it is, in its base, transpersonal form. This is what we call “spirit.”
The Miracle Worker, is a modern spiritual myth, concerning real miracles. Myths connect us to our ancestors. By studying her story, we’re reminded of what the ancestors have given us, and what a gift life truly is, in a world overflowing with knowledge. We access our own spirit and we’re reminded of what makes us whole, or a universal human being. As such, it is the perfect secular holiday play.
Go see it at Artists Repertory Theatre before January 17, 2016.