YSU’s Spotlight Theater starts strong with ‘Miracle Worker’

An extraordinary cast brings the play to life.



YOUNGSTOWN — “The Miracle Worker,” the true story of Helen Keller, opens with a wrenching cradle scene and ends in triumph.

In between it depicts the violent battle of wills that climaxes in the blossoming of a feral child into one who has harnessed her mind.

The superbly written 1959 play by William Gibson is set in the 1880s at the Alabama estate of Capt. Keller. Helen, his 12-year-old daughter, is blind, deaf and mute — and completely undisciplined.

“The Miracle Worker” opened Thursday at Spotlight Arena Theater at Youngstown State University. A project of the student-run Blackbox Productions team, it launched the school’s theater season with typical high quality.

Rachel Rossi directs, using intimacy to put a human face on this uplifting case.

Staged in the round, and with minimal props, YSU’s “The Miracle Worker” powerfully retells this well-known story. The small cast is excellent — not a weak link in sight — and the dark stage magnifies the characters, making them like statues that have come to life.

Although there is very little use of props, the costuming is extraordinary. It’s all that is needed to evoke the gentility and wealth of a Southern planter family.


Gary Shackleford is the gruff Capt. Keller, who rules a house that is weary with burden. Shackleford gives the war veteran and newspaper publisher the bearing of a community pillar (and an uncanny resemblance to Nicolas Cage). Missy Bookbinder plays his second wife, Kate Keller, who is subservient to her husband and maternally attached to Helen. Randall S. Huffman II portrays James, the captain’s antagonistic son, while Monica Beasley Martin is the vibrant if not stereotypical Southern housekeeper.

No relationship, of course, is more important than that between Helen and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, played respectively by Jennifer Tomerlin and Nicole Dionisio.

And these two young actresses are nothing short of amazing. They will stir you to your feet in tribute to their talent.

Annie is a feisty young Irish woman, who was reared in a school for the blind and had only recently regained her sight. A brash Northerner who refuses to pity Helen, she won’t give in until her work is done. But her headstrong personality doesn’t exactly mesh well in her new surroundings.

She forcefully teaches Helen sign language, giving her the priceless gift of words that leads her out of the wilderness. It’s hard work — and it makes for slow going in the first part of the second act.

Dionisio demonstrates her command of every skill, from brawling to weeping for joy, while putting on an Irish accent.

Tomerlin, in her YSU debut, gives her headstrong and physical character a transformation. For most of the play, Helen is a grunting tantrum-prone tyrant who veers from person to person. She never talks, of course, but when the light finally goes on in her head, you can see it on the actress’s face. And it speaks volumes.

X“The Miracle Worker” will be performed at 8 tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday at Spotlight Arena Theater in Bliss Hall, on Wick Avenue (at YSU). For reservations, call (330) 941-3105.

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