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THEATER | Stage Review

Actors Carry 'Miracle' in Costa Mesa

May 13, 1999|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse's above-average staging of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" isn't the first time this theater has visited the triumphant world of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan.

A little more than a decade ago, the playhouse mounted a memorable "Monday After the Miracle," Gibson's sequel to the much more popular original. That show, which explored the thorny relationship between Sullivan and a grown-up Helen, was good enough to win third place in a national contest in Omaha, Neb., sponsored by the American Assn. of Community Theaters.

This Terri Miller Schmidt-directed effort isn't up to that standard, but there are positives. Its muted success comes from fulfilling the basic requirement: giving the audience an affecting portrayal of Sullivan and a believable one of the young Helen, a girl caught in a dark, soundless world.

Although Helen's struggle and eventual awakening is at the core of "The Miracle Worker," this old-fashioned drama is really about Sullivan, who was blind herself and sees redemption in what she can accomplish for her student.

Sophie Areno reveals Sullivan's nearly desperate desire to create a better life for Helen. Whether Sullivan is living through flashbacks of her own unhappy childhood or dragging her charge through one tough-love lesson after another, Areno shows a depth of caring in her character that amplifies her heroism.

As for her part in this emotional dance, Marina Dompke does the usual when it comes to playing Helen, meaning she thrashes around and generally makes a pitiable nuisance of herself. But the young actress does so in believable ways, especially at the breakthrough finale when an ecstatic Helen realizes that Sullivan's sign-language actually has meaning.

Those these two are fine, there's weakness in some of the supporting cast. Stephen Gomer is gruffly one-dimensional as Helen's imperious father, and Matthew Reinert's Percy, Helen's brother, isn't vivid enough to fully connect us with this misunderstood dandy or have us care much about his tense relationship with his father.

The production's look has pluses, starting with Larry Watts' set, which incorporates the Kellers' dining room, Sullivan's upstairs bedroom and other areas of the home without seeming crowded. Bill Bingham's lighting is harsh at times, but mostly it's appropriately understated, as at the play's beginning when candles provide much of the illumination.

BE THERE

"The Miracle Worker," Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $8.50 and $10. (949) 650-5269. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.

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