The Sacramento Theatre Company's spirited season-opening production of "The Miracle Worker" ironically benefits from careful restraint.
Greg Alexander's astute, unaffected direction avoids playwright William Gibson's tilts toward melodrama, instead creating an honest emotional core that connects the characters and grounds their performances.
The production ultimately triumphs through the fiercely convincing performances of Brittni Barger as the determined young teacher Annie Sullivan and Bella Bagatelos as the wild child Helen Keller (Courtney Shannon also performs the role).
Sullivan arrived from the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston at the Keller family home in Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1887. Just 20 years old, she recognized Helen's intelligence and started trying to communicate with her with a language based on hand symbols Helen could feel.
Sullivan's task, and the central movement of the play, is her work getting Helen to understand the sequence of symbols to represent objects and ideas.
Sullivan also realizes that the greatest impediment is the patronizing good intention of Helen's parents. Capt. Arthur Keller (Gary Wright) and his wife, Kate (Michele Hillen), indulge all of the young girl's whims, hoping to short- circuit her frequent tantrums.
They don't, though.
Wright and Hillen deftly elevate what could be one-dimensional characters. Wright subtly injects a comic tinge, while Hillen gives the earnest Kate a believable urgency.
Griffith Munn as Helen's acerbic brother, James (Garrick Sigl also plays the role), and Tahlema Martin as the servant Viney are also solid supporting players.
As Barger's compelling Annie continually holds her ground, standing up for herself and the person she believes Helen can be, the production finds a meaningful emotional currency beyond the playwright's words.
THE MIRACLE WORKER
Three 1/2 stars
What: William Gibson's 1959 play about teacher Annie Sullivan and her famous pupil, Helen Keller.
When: Continues at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, and 12:30 p.m. Thursdays, through Oct. 28.
Where: Sacramento Theatre Company Mainstage, 1419 H St.
Tickets: $15-$38 (Discounts available for students, seniors and groups.)
Information: www.sactheatre.org, (916) 443-6722
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes