When I was teaching theatre arts, there was one “dialogue” that inevitably, every semester, my students would choose for their scene work. I know often they would make this selection because it included only two written words (“Good girl”). Easy memorization. Not a chance. This partnership would entail some of the most challenging, difficult, exhausting, and precise physical movements compared to all the other choices offered. It was a debilitating battle in a dining room that only required some chairs, a table, a plate of eggs, a dozen spoons, and one cloth napkin, but it would be necessary to spend countless hours rehearsing, nevertheless. William Gibson wrote a powerful moment of two forces colliding for control and trust with Patty Duke as Helen Keller and Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan. With these two Oscar-winning leading ladies creating Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress roles, THE MIRACLE WORKER was destined to be a cherished classic.  

THE MIRACLE WORKER premiered in 1962. It retold the true story of how a small baby lost her ability to hear, see, and talk due to high fevers for days on end, just two years after the Civil War. Doctors had no idea how to help children with accessibility grow up to live productive lives. Many were found in mental asylums for lack of how to care for them. Helen’s mother, Kate, played by Inga Swenson, would not give up. She and her husband, Captain Arthur (Victor Jory) were wealthy plantation owners. They sent for a teacher all the way from Boston to help their very spoiled daughter. Helen had no way to communicate. She was a smart little girl trapped inside a dark, quiet world. Annie was only twenty when she was hired. Together at first, they were volatile and combative. It took Helen some time to let Annie into her world. It was a match made in heaven, to be sure. When she finally gave Annie the keys to all the doors, it was a symbolic moment that was goosebump worthy.   

The chemistry between Patty and Anne was perfection. The art of true acting is reacting. This is what these two did over and over. Their performances were honest, gut-wrenching moments that tore at my heartstrings, and yet made me laugh out loud at Annie’s sarcastic sense of humor when she was the receiver of Helen’s physical blows. The two of them had to be so in sync with every move. It was like watching a perfectly orchestrated sporting match but with many surprises along the way. Patty was a consummate actress to be able to perform in such proximity to Anne and never once really make eye contact as the blind will do.   

The black and white cinematography allowed the focus to not be on “things” but on the actors themselves. The costumes were period and subtle. The ensemble was small so that, again, all eyes were on Helen and Annie. There were many PTSD seconds that Annie suffered from her troubled past. In many ways, both women healed each other and opened a world they never dreamed could exist. I have two favorite lines. One was after the infamous dining room breakfast battle, and Annie says, “The room’s a wreck, but she folded her napkin.” The other was at the water pump, and Annie shouts, “She knows…she understands.” Tears of joy appear on my cheeks as I watch this cathartic climax.   

THE MIRACLE WORKER is an outstanding, impressive film. It is a superb master class in acting and showcases the necessity to let go to become “one” with your character. The work was raw and, at times, not sentimental. It made you wonder how, at such a young age, Annie Sullivan could realize exactly what Helen needed. It was a testament to humanity and the will to “live your best life.”

THE MIRACLE WORKER is a true classic that should be witnessed and treasured again and again. It is available to stream on MAX. 

Esta Rosevear

Esta Rosevear has been a Theatre Arts teacher and director for 35+ years, published Children’s author of the Rebecca series, and is passionate about playing her violin, walking, gardening, and reading murder mysteries.

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