By Jason McKay
As Theatre Calgary’s new play The Miracle Worker starts, the only thing visible on the stage is a pump, as inescapable a symbol for water as it is for William Gibson’s influential play. Like adding fresh water to an already thriving plant, the cast of mostly new members to the always-reliable Theatre Calgary only makes a good thing better.
One example of this new water is the young Franca Haesler who plays Helen Keller and manages the role so well it’s hard to believe she has not actually experienced what it is like to be unable to communicate with the world around her. Helen’s battle of wills with her new teacher, Annie Sullivan, played by Amy Jo Scherman, another new recruit for Theatre Calgary, is dazzling. During some of the more intense scenes between the two, the tension becomes too thick even for a knife to cut, in these remarkable scenes it would take a chainsaw to even break the surface. At just the right moment some levity is added, preventing the play from slipping down into a well of despair. Wayne Best also provides another way for the play to avoid taking such a dark tone as Helen’s father, who delivers some of the best punch lines in The Miracle Worker.
Such flawless integration of so many new cast members with the more cagey veterans of the company could not have been done without excellent direction from Nikki Loach. Somehow she has managed to bring a cast of eleven, seven of which are in their debut performance, together seamlessly, as if they have all been working with one another for years. If you didn’t know this was the first time most of the cast was working with each other you’d never be able to tell.
The simplicity of the set also works in The Miracle Worker’s favour. There’s a total lack of set changes in the play, accomplished by an ingenuous combination of lighting and a series of drop down curtains with shadows projected on them, creating the effect of different settings.
The key element for Helen Keller was water, and so it is with Theatre Calgary’s adaptation of this classic. A symbol of water is the first thing audiences see upon entering the theatre, and it is the last thing audiences see before Helen’s breakthrough into the world of language.