Imagine a world of total darkness where colours do not exist, the sight of beauty blackened and nonexistant. Add to the mixture a total lack of sound; no chirping of birds, no baby's cry, music refused entrance, sirens that will never punctuate with intensity and ambition, the sound of a human voice obliterated and obscured forever. The final ingredient is the failure to express our anxiety for the lack of the first two through the conduit of a voice; the final denial. Envisage the aimless wandering and permanence of a private prison that the prisoner rarely escapes from and you have the stunted world of Helen Keller.
It is the waning years of the 19th century and Helen (Patty Duke) has been left to her own wild devices, eking out an existence with her parents, Captain and Mrs. Keller (Victor Jory, Inga Swenson) and her half brother, James (Andrew Prine) in the South that has been left in a state of perpetual flux, courtesy of the Civil War.
Helen is quite used to getting her own way and creates devices that are guaranteed to garner attention of a frustrating nature from the people who make up her world. She exacerbates an already fragile situation by manipulating those in charge of her care and well-being, but who are loathe to put a stop to her tantrums and spoiled ways because they feel sorry for her condition and treat her with a special care that would not otherwise be tolerated if she had been normal. James rues the day when he has the audacity to mention having her committed to an asylum and considers it as a 'kindness'. To her parent's credit, they disavow this suggestion with a firm no. The asylums of past centuries were simply warehouses for people caught in the spectrum of situations not entirely of their own creation -- prostitutes with diseases that are not supposed to be 'mentioned', their children left behind who died in vast numbers, the old, the sick and infirm and those who were called 'crazy'.
In order to escape this descent into the maelstrom of Hades, Kate Keller gains permission from her husband to write to the Perkins Institute in Boston, seeking help for Helen. This help comes in the guise of Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), a young woman who herself was blind by the age of 10, but through a series of operations, is left with just enough sight to enable her to read for short periods of time and to function in the everyday world around her. Helen is to be her first student and her key into the creation and experience that she dwells in. Annie will not be wearing the velvet glove of submission and sympathy, but rather the iron glove of firmness and definite purpose of thought and conviction.
It will become a battle royal for all the involved parties, with the summation of a breakthrough of surmountable proportions.
The performances by the two main actresses, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, are stunning in their variety and ability to draw the audience into the wherewithal of this tiny, secular slice of time and place. Duke repeats her Broadway performance perfectly, shot through with adrenalin and persistence. Bancroft, who had previously been a supporting actress, takes her first big role and captures the essence of a lonely, scared, but defiant young woman, attempting to shift Helen's devoid world back off its axis and onto the plateau of human life as we know it. The famous dining room scene, when Annie attempts to charge Helen with the task of sitting and eating her own food, from her own plate and with a spoon, is orchestrated with dexterous precision. It's an exercise in perseverance and precision. There is a camaraderie between them that goes together like bread and butter, and they play off each other like dueling generals, hungry for victory.
The supporting roles lend credence with kudos going to Victor Jory, as the gruff, bellowing with damnation Colonel, mired in the semblance of the courtly southern gentleman who, thinking that women belonged in the home with children, bends his heart when Kate begs permission to seek one more treatment for Helen. His belching, devil be damned exterior is softened considerably when Helen makes her historic breakthrough. Jory's career spanned the early days of Hollywood in the 30's, with his most notable performance being that of Jonas Wilkerson in 'Gone With The Wind'.
Inga Swenson is heartbreaking as Kate Keller, with the need to rescue her child from an isolated world and to be her daughter in every true sense of the word. Her pathos and exhilaration, running in tandem, show absolute ability to capture the essence of her character and the fragile, yet unshaken belief that Helen will be brought back to her.
Direction by Arthur Penn is superb and he plays his cast like a finely tuned violin that echoes with tones that initially conceal the butterfly waiting to reveal itself, but must first proceed through the living and learning stages before the beauty of the situation is realized. It was through the dedication of himself and the screenwriter, William Gibson, that Bancroft was offered her role, and a resounding offer of thanks is to be given.
William Gibson has taken his stage play and presented it with an unchallenged and unnerving hold on the story and it has transferred to the screen, with dignified elegance.
Cinematography by Ernesto Capparos is understated and his use of black and white betray a sense of otherworldliness, especially when flashbacks of Annie's life in the asylum are exhibited. They're rather like a dream, being played for our mind's eye, that shocks with the reality of a nightmare played in perpetuity. The stark corporeality of the sets and the minimalist nature take the camera hostage and this duet sets the stage for the unfolding story.
Music by Laurence Rosenthal is deft in its handling and communicates the silent moments with subtly and parlays itself around the racetrack when moments of great power present themselves. This is especially noted when Annie finally 'connects' with Helen at the water pump and the latter realizes that everything has a name and meaning.
Costume designs by Ruth Morley are rendered in an unhurried and are true to form in their representation of a simple, middle class family living as the times allowed; unhurried and unfettered, but struggling to keep up appearances.
The Miracle Worker is aglow with understated elegance. We are entrusted with the spirit of the human condition and the determination of the mind to capture the possibilities that exist all around us. After seeing this production, all your problems will seem minor in comparison.
The Miracle Worker is thought provoking and entwines us with questions that erupt from what if's to persuasion and confidence, and the knowledge that all things are possible if given half a chance. To quote Helen Keller, 'Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.'
American theatre and film director whose depiction of the rebellious character in movies found its most celebrated example in Bonnie and Clyde, which was hugely important in ushering in a new style of Hollywood film, not to mention new styles in Hollywood violence. Before that he had helmed psychological Billy the Kid story The Left Handed Gun, the much acclaimed The Miracle Worker, and Warren Beatty-starring experimental flop Mickey One, which nevertheless led to the both of them making the gangster movie that was so influential.