‘The Miracle Worker’ retains its power to move us

Annie Sullivan (Sarah Woldum) and Helen Keller (Emily Bowers) have a breakthrough in “The Miracle Worker” at Theatre Charlotte.
Annie Sullivan (Sarah Woldum) and Helen Keller (Emily Bowers) have a breakthrough in “The Miracle Worker” at Theatre Charlotte. Chris Timmons

Stop. Look. Listen. Do you feel what you should see? Do you taste what you should hear? That’s the reality for someone who is deaf, blind, and mute. Someone like Helen Keller.

Theatre Charlotte’s production of “The Miracle Worker” is emotionally and physically draining from start to finish, in the best way possible. William Gibson adapted this play from Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” From the introduction, you can’t help but feel anguish.

Before words are spoken, lights dim, barely illuminating the stage. Lighting designer Chris Timmons creates a somber mood, letting up only occasionally. A baby wails while a doctor and parents are in and out of the nursery. But when infant Helen does not respond to her mother’s playful antics, panic sets in, and fear takes over.

Bloodcurdling screams reverberate between the walls of Helen’s second-floor bedroom, signifying a mother’s confusion, anxiety and broken heart. Kate Keller (Caylyn Temple) and Captain Keller (Philip Robertson) are devastated, realizing their beloved daughter has no use of her eyes or ears.

Fast-forward several years to find an elementary school-age Helen (Emily Bowers) still unable to speak, hear, or see, communicating only through touch and tantrums. Her friends and family routinely make concessions for the behavior, citing her disability as the catalyst. Only her adult half-brother James (Alex Duckworth), who also has personal struggles with expression, provides light relief with his Barney Fife-like demeanor.

Young Emily Bowers, a sixth-grader at Northwest School of the Arts, is a powerhouse as the complicated lead character. Her silence is loud and commanding, even during moments of reverie. Furrowed brows trade places with vacant eyes. Her portrayal is so captivating at times that no one else exists on stage, though the others are present.

Kate decides to hire Annie Sullivan, passionately depicted by Sarah Woldum, from Perkins Institute for the Blind. Within moments of her arrival, Helen and Annie are in a struggle of wills. Woldum never shies away from Sullivan’s intensity; conflicts boil over, none more riveting than a breakfast brawl. Woldum and Bowers exhaust themselves, pushing and pulling each other amid muteness. Fight choreographer Charles Holmes proficiently instructed the ladies in combat, with and without emotion.

Director Paige Johnston Thomas skillfully leads the Keller family through highs and lows. Kate, the polite but firm southern belle who won’t abandon her daughter, and the Captain, brash and stern while protecting his women, long for the same result.

Scenic designer Gillian Albinski chose not to use the entire space, jumbling several drab pieces of furniture on a raised platform. Could this be Helen’s mind played out on stage, colorless objects confined to one space and needing arrangement?

Writer Gibson makes clear that taming a wild animal is Sullivan’s chore, but it proves to be more than a job: She begins to care. At times you don’t know whom to root for, the animal or the tamer, and you inevitably end up cheering for both.

The Miracle Worker

When: Through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Road.

Running time: 120 minutes.

Tickets: $12-27.

Details: 704-376-3777; theatrecharlotte.org