Stebner, Klimenko bring ‘Miracle Worker’ to life

By Milan Paurich

Due to the physically demanding nature of the role, finding the right young actress to portray Helen Keller in a community-theater production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” can be an almost Sisyphian task.

Fortunately for director J.E. Ballantyne Jr., he hit the jackpot while casting his current Victorian Players revival of Gibson’s 1959 chestnut.

As Keller, Lisandra Stebner delivers a performance of such heartstopping authenticity and unbridled conviction that you truly believe she’s deaf, blind and mute.

It’s a stunning tour de force that deserves every glowing accolade in my well-worn thesaurus.

And choosing an actress to play Keller’s teacher-mentor Annie Sullivan can be equally daunting.

Not only must Sullivan go head to toe — and fist to fist in some of the play’s brutally realistic fight scenes — with Keller, she must also convince the audience of her own disability. (Because Sullivan was half-blind herself, she always wore sunglasses to block out the light.)

Ballantyne lucked out here as well. Best known for her work in musical theater (“Titanic,” “Jekyll and Hyde,” et al), Sara Klimenko rises to the challenge and proves her mettle as one of the area’s finest dramatic actresses.

With such a formidable acting duet, it’s easy to forgive the show’s occasional flaws.

A somewhat indulgent three-act structure necessitates having two 10-minute intermissions, which prolong an already-lengthy evening of theater.

Furthermore, some of Gibson’s dialogue sounds a tad stilted and overly prosaic 50 years after its Broadway premiere.

It reminded me of second-tier Tennessee Williams minus the redemptive flights of poetry. And though Ballantyne does a yeoman’s job of moving his large cast hither and yon on the Victorian’s petite stage, there’s an almost inevitable traffic-jam quality to some of the comings-and-goings.

I’m also not sure whether we really needed the intermittent aural flashbacks of Sullivan’s nightmarish childhood since they’re more distracting than truly edifying.

The set design by Dr. Thomas Copeland, however, is as visually appealing as Pam Sacui, Judy Fields and Cherie Stebner’s period-appropriate costumes.

As superb as the two leads are, the supporting cast is rather spotty. Joyce Jones’ innate warmth and good humor prevent Keller maid Viney from turning into a retrograde Mammy stereotype, and Barbara Malizia’s Mrs. Keller grows stronger and more confident as the evening progresses.

I was less sold on C. Richard Haldi’s overwrought Captain Keller, Lynn Kirwkood’s flibberty-gibbet Aunt Ev, Roger Wright’s ineffectual doctor and Andrew J. Magusiak’s wooden Anagnos.

After experiencing a bad case of stage fright in Act One, Gordon Setter Poppy Thomas truly came into her own by play’s end. The handsome pup is a member of K9’s for Compassion, a nonprofit charity group that visits local hospitals and nursing homes.

Helen’s cynical half brother James doesn’t seem nearly as comfortable a fit for YSU student Cheney Morgan as some of the actor’s previous roles (the Gentleman Caller in NCP’s “The Glass Menagerie”; Selridge in the Youngstown Playhouse’s “Biloxi Blues”).

Accordingly, a lot of Morgan’s usual spontaneity and naturalism as a performer seems oddly muted.

Still, this “Miracle Worker” demands to be seen — and savored — for Stebner and Klimenko’s extraordinarily powerful, exquisitely moving performances.

For helping to elicit such marvelous work from his remarkable lead actresses, Ballantyne proves something of an alchemist himself.

“The Miracle Worker” runs through May 10 at the Victorian Players, 702 Mahoning Ave. For tickets and showtimes, call (330) 746-5455.

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