When “The Miracle Worker” opened Oct. 30, the numerous empty seats in Theatre Baton Rouge probably belonged to people forced by weather to get an early start on giving and receiving tricks or treats.
What they missed was somewhere between the two.
The treats involve an inspirational story and the two actresses at the center of it. Susie Lucas plays Helen Keller, the 19th century Alabama child robbed of sight and hearing by a sickness in infancy. Megan Barrios plays Annie Sullivan, the young woman brought in as a last hope to reach Helen, whose inability to communicate and her family’s unwillingness to discipline her had made her a hellion.
It’s quite a role for Lucas, who literally has no lines but has to stay in character the whole time because, except when she is lying on her bed, the audience’s eyes never leave her. A sixth-grader, Lucas is older than her character, who was 7 when Sullivan arrived from Boston, but it’s hard to imagine a much younger actress having the discipline to handle this assignment. Her facial expressions — alternately curious, hostile, bewildered, sad and happy — are spot on.
Barrios also is strong as the complicated Sullivan, who had once been blind and suffers from memories of how her younger brother, Jimmy, had died when they were living in an orphanage. Sullivan is both willful and insecure, with rough edges brought on by a hard life. But Barrios conveys compassion for her young pupil, despite the frustration of not immediately being able to connect with her.
The play, co-directed by Jenny Ballard and Jack Lampert, tells the tale of her breakthrough not only with Helen but the rest of the Kellers, a blended family that includes a son, James (played by Nick Dias), from Arthur Keller’s (Lee Allen) first marriage. But nobody, not even his wife, Kate (Charlynn White) calls him by his first name, but by his Confederate Army rank, Captain, suggesting an imperiousness that Allen captures well.
However, Allen’s portrayal sometimes crosses from distant to wooden. He demonstrates no real passion toward his wife or either of his children. Even when arguing about the Civil War with James, he seems unengaged. It doesn’t help that, with silver hair and beard, Allen appears a generation removed from Arthur Keller, who was 44 when Helen was born.
White does well enough as the overprotective mom, as does Dias as the son who resents Helen and can’t please his father. Though, given few lines, Aimee Bajoie adds some whimsy as the family’s cook, Viney.
The set design is minimalist, but it works well, and a large white screen in the background becomes a colorful wall for silhouettes between scenes, which is engaging. There are some light moments in this two-hour play, which provide welcome relief from the tension of Helen and Anne’s struggles.