Friday, June 18, 2004

Outdoor Drama: Miracle Worker in northwest Alabama

William Gibson's Miracle Worker is not well-suited to outdoor drama, and Helen Keller's childhood home of Ivy Green isn't well-equipped to stage it. Yet from mid-June to mid-July, every Friday and Saturday night (weather permitting), Ivy Green mounts an outdoor production of Gibson's play -- which has now become "The Official Outdoor Drama of the State of Alabama." The mind boggles. When the Alabama legislature conferred this grand title on Gibson's modest drama, did they know that the play venerated one of America's most outspoken Communist radicals?

Considering that this production is the "Official Outdoor Drama of the State of Alabama," it's a remarkably low-budget affair. (Then again, given Alabama's recent fiscal woes, the low budget may not be so unusual after all.) One professional actress portrays Anne Sullivan year after year, while the remaining roles are filled with local volunteers. The set, also used year after year, depicts five rather sparsely furnished rooms, one of which is upstairs. The amphitheater at Ivy Green seats about five hundred people: A few rows of folding chairs in the front -- "reserved seating" -- are supplemented with several rows of metal bleachers, most likely borrowed from a local high school. Those metal bleachers, by the way, have inspired panic in stronger hearts than mine; they appear none too sturdy, considering the weight they bear. Worse yet, the open spaces between the seats and floorboards ensure that one wrong step will send unsuspecting theatergoers plummeting to the concrete below.

Since Ivy Green is located only a few blocks from downtown Tuscumbia, you'd expect this particular production to be plagued by ambient light and ambient noise, the twin bugbears of outdoor drama. It turns out that light isn't much of a problem (the neighborhood is fairly old, and stays dark at night). Noise, however, is a major concern: Diesel trains blow their stacks, and muscle cars race through the city streets. Ambient noise may be inevitable given the location, but it can be minimized -- especially where traffic is concerned. For example, the town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia, hosts a summer outdoor drama within its city limits; the theater is situated less than one block from a national highway. Yet it keeps auto noise to an absolute minimum through a judicious combination of noise ordinances and street closures.

The crazy acoustics of outdoor drama makes substantial demands on the human voice, which is why most dramas written for outdoor performance feature large casts, community-oriented action, and relatively little dialogue for individual actors. Of course, because The Miracle Worker was not written as outdoor drama, it doesn't take questions of acoustics, stamina or spectacle into account. Instead, it features a smaller cast, with long passages of dialogue assigned to individual characters. Luckily, the cast members here don't have to work miracles with their voices. They're all amplified with wireless microphones.

But outdoor drama can be tough on electronic equipment -- which means that microphones and lights will malfunction even under the best conditions. In less optimal venues like the one at Ivy Green, the electronics are more likely not to work at all. At the performance I saw, the sound would cut in and out with loud clicks and distracting buzzes. One battery of stage lights and speakers, mounted precariously on a ten-foot-tall creosote pole, suffered a slow, protracted death during the first act, eventually leaving half the stage dim if not quite dark. During intermission, I overheard the play's lighting supervisor -- "a recent High School graduate," the program announced breathlessly! -- discuss the technical situation with an usher. He had shimmed up the pole to look at the electrical connections, and decided that they were too far gone to fix right now. For the rest of the evening, that part of the stage would just have to stay dark. Since the production's lighting and sound were rudimentary at best, no one in the audience cared much.

I figured if The Miracle Worker could survive this, it could survive nearly anything -- and I'll add that the play acquitted itself nicely. Granted, I saw this performance with an audience of sleepy senior citizens and Mennonite families (including very young children who didn't understand what was going on, but liked to watch little Helen pitch fits). The actresses playing Anne Sullivan and Kate Keller were quite good; other cast members were mediocre. Although the direction was less attentive and the audience far less responsive than I might have wished, I still found that the play packed an emotional wallop. I suppose it is about as close to idiot-proof as drama can get. Gibson's writing may not be "High Art," but in the end it's damn good craft.

Best of all, this outdoor production features Sullivan's second-act monologue describing the state asylum. I believe both the 1962 movie and the Disney teleplay cut the speech's explicit references to rape, prostitution and venereal disease -- so it's nice to see that Ivy Green has retained all of the potentially shocking content. Still, I imagine those Mennonite kids got quite an education; I'd love to hear how their parents explained it after the show.

If you go to Tuscumbia to see The Miracle Worker, arrive early: The play begins at 8 p.m., but the home is open for complimentary self-guided tours for a full hour prior to the performance. (Ivy Green is a surprisingly small home, so a complete tour of house, grounds and gift shop should take thirty minutes or less.) Tickets for reserved seats are ten dollars each, but I prefer the "general seating" in the bleachers. It's elevated, and offers a better view of the action. At seven bucks each, these cheap seats are a real bargain.

This year, The Miracle Worker runs Fridays and Saturdays only, through July 12. The box office can be inconvenient -- no credit cards, cash or check only, advance reservations handled through "snail mail," no website, etc. So if you want to see the play, just show up at Ivy Green during business hours on the day of performance, and buy your tickets there. For more info, call (256) 383-4066.

Greetings from scenic Wynne, Arkansas!

I've been spending the past few days with family in Wynne, Arkansas. For anyone seeking a nice place to settle down, Wynne's cheap, and despite the swarms of mosquitoes you could do far worse. The town itself is less than an hour's drive from Memphis, Tennessee, and has three things to recommend it:

1. Village Creek State Park is about eight miles away. It isn't the most scenic park in the state, but it has plenty for families to do: fishing lakes, a swimming beach, playgrounds, trails, cabins and camping, even a baseball diamond.

2. Kelley's Restaurant, not far from the Wal-Mart, has one of the best buffets in northeast Arkansas. (In this part of the world, almost all restaurants are fast-food joints, buffets, or turf-and-surf steakhouses.)

3. A Wal-Mart supercenter on the edge of town keeps the cost of living fairly low.

I visited two cousins, Mike and Blake, yesterday. They don't live in Wynne, but they live close by. Mike is nine, Blake seven. I usually bring something to talk about when I see them. This time I had compasses. So we talked about directions -- North, South, East, West.

"East," said Blake, and realized he had heard about that direction on television. "Isn't that where we're having a big, um, battle? Where's the people we're fighting right now? Oh, yeah! Iwaq!"

Uh-oh, I think. Where did this seven-year-old kid hear about Iraq?

Blake knows about suicide bombers and terrorists, and he knows we have to defend our nation against them. He told me this himself. He also knows that two tall buidings fell down in New York, and though a lot of people got out, a lot of people still died, and this made us very sad.

Blake is smarter than some left-liberals I know.

So in an attempt to understand what was happening in Iraq, Blake and I opened up a thirty-year-old encyclopedia. We looked at a map of the country, and found all the places Blake had heard about on the evening news. But Blake's eye was drawn to a photo of a man steering a kufa -- a round boat made of reeds and hides -- down a river. (The caption didn't mention which river he was on, a curious omission for a reference book.) About an hour later, when Blake's mother asked what we had been talking about, my cousin replied, "There was this guy in a big round boat, and the boat was made out of plants and animal fur."

Unlike Middle Eastern politics, boats are comprehensible. I envy Blake's common sense.

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