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THEATER REVIEW: "The Miracle Worker"

The stage is dark -- and silent -- for what seems a long time. Then voices are heard, and strange noises. Finally a child’s arm reaches into the spotlight, then the other arm, and soon we see a young girl, crawling on all fours into the light.

This clever directorial move by Robert Smyth draws the audience into both worlds – the hearing and the deaf – at once and sets up the drama and clashes to come.

The girl is Helen Keller, who went blind and deaf at 18 months as a result of illness and has since become a bit of a burden to her well-meaning parents, who don’t know how to teach her to communicate.

The story of Helen and Anne Sullivan, the young “miracle worker” from the Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts who taught her not just language but how to relate to people is well known, thanks to William Gibson’s 1957 teleplay which became a multiple Tony-winning play in 1959.

Lamb’s Players Theatre presents “The Miracle Worker” through April 10 at its Coronado location.

Annie, wonderfully played by Kelsey Venter, is barely out of her teens when she is sent to the Kellers’ home in Alabama to teach this wild, undisciplined girl who gets her way by tantrum and eats by stuffing food in her mouth with her hands.

Anne is determined to teach her “first, last and in between, language,” because “language is to the mind more than light is to the eye.” But first, she has to teach Helen to obey.

“Obedience is the gateway through which knowledge enters the mind of the child,” says Annie, horrifying the Kellers by physically restraining Helen from uncivilized behavior like eating with her hands.

Smyth’s imaginative direction and reduced but splendid cast give us a fascinating 90-minute visit with the miracle worker and her charge, who later became good friends.

And the results speak for themselves. Helen graduated cum laude from Radcliffe and became a worldwide lecturer and advocate for programs to improve the lives of the blind.

Lucia Vecchio never gives less than her all onstage (I recall especially her splendid Anne Frank a few years back); here she almost literally throws herself into the role of Helen so completely that I feared for her safety a few times (she and Venter get into some active physical confrontations). Credit fight choreographer Jordan Miller for keeping everyone safe.

Venter not only lets us see her stern approach to Helen’s education, but how difficult it was for her to hold the discipline line, especially in the face of parental opposition.

Jason Heil and Cynthia Gerber are convincing as Helen’s confused parents, grateful for Annie’s help but dubious about her tactics.

Yolanda Franklin, always excellent, gives another fine performance as the Keller’s housekeeper Viney.

Nathan Peirson’s lighting and Deborah Gilmour Smyth’s haunting sound design are excellent, and Jeanne Reith’s period-appropriate costumes also set the scene well.

Lamb’s is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. This is their third production of “The Miracle Worker,” and it is a fine one.

The Details

“The Miracle Worker” plays through April 10, 2016 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Avenue, Coronado.

Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or lambsplayers.org