A deeply offensive Helen Keller remake just might save Intiman

The scene changes, but the story remains the same as Dan Savage's "Helen" Keller finds his place in the world at 1990s Seattle drag bar.
Crosscut archive image.

Drag queen Crystal Pain (Burton Curtis) offers a drink to Annie Sullivan (Hannah Victoria Franklin) as Helen Stellar (Jonathon Pyburn) prepares for his act in Miracle!

The scene changes, but the story remains the same as Dan Savage's "Helen" Keller finds his place in the world at 1990s Seattle drag bar.

The pink placard above the stage of Miracle!, which opened at Intiman on July 14, says it all: “The play you are about to see is deeply offensive to the Deaf-Blind community. Do not tell them about it. Keep your hands shut.”

Dan Savage, writer of sex columns and coiner of obscene monikers for former presidential candidates, has drafted and directed what may go down in history as the most tasteless, hilarious and improbably heartwarming play about Helen Keller ever to grace any stage, anywhere.

The plot, simply put, is queer in both senses of the word. Savage takes the basic outline of the historical Keller’s life and situates it in Seattle’s 1990s drag scene. Instead of being raised by a wealthy Southern family in the late 19th century, Savage’s Helen (Jonathon Pyburn) is born to a gay-but-repressed Christian man (Burton Curtis) who comes out after his son loses his hearing and sight as a toddler. Abandoned by his wife, he moves to Seattle, adopts the stage name Crystal Pain, and opens a drag bar. He raises Helen in the bar and becomes, in effect, both father and “drag mother” to his deaf-blind cross-dressing son, who takes the stage every night and flails about to the tune of “I Will Survive.”

On stage during his drag act, Helen brays loudly, stomps out of sync with the music, grins dementedly through his sloppy makeup, and shimmies awkwardly in a clownish array of sequined, fringed and feathered garb designed by drag whiz-kid Erik Andor. Whenever Helen totters dangerously close to the edge of the stage in his high heels, his father zaps him with an electric dog collar he’s forced to wear.

It is so wrong. So wrong. So very, very wrong. And the fact that it is so funny makes it all the more wrong.

But there’s more to Miracle! than a deaf-blind 20-year-old aping a drag lip sync routine, which is even more horrifying seen live than the written word can convey. Savage’s play has heart. Unprintable jokes about anal sex, true, but also a core message about parental
love and acceptance.

“‘Her’ name is Helen Stellar. Stellar as in star!” Crystal proudly proclaims, calling his son “a special queen” and unflaggingly protecting, cheering on and generally adoring his child. When faced with criticism about the gross spectacle that Helen makes of himself on stage, Crystal snaps, “She likes to perform! It’s the only joy in her life.”

Though their bond is sweet, it is also destructive. Helen has never received any schooling, therapy or discipline. When Child Protective Services gets wind of the electric-dog-collar-drag-routine, it sends a specialist in the education of deaf-blind children to intervene.

The teacher is Annie Sullivan, modeled on the historic figure but transformed into an open and very active lesbian. As portrayed by Hannah Victoria Franklin, she’s a hearty, no-b.s. feminist who clashes repeatedly with the trio of lewd-mouthed drag queens (Drew Highlands, Timothy McCuen Piggee and Michael Place) who perform dance numbers to pop hits on the bar’s stage before trolling the customers to turn tricks.

“I just need to push one word into her mind and everything under the sun will follow,” Sullivan, a devoted though professionally inexperienced teacher, agonizes. Her efforts to break through to Helen closely follow the historical Helen Keller story, but with a cross-dressing twist. Instead of forcing her pupil to sit properly at the dining table and eat her dinner, Sullivan struggles to make Helen sit at her makeup table and apply her lipstick. In lieu of finger-spelling the words “doll” and “chair,” Sullivan signs “bra” and “falsies.” And rather than a gushing water pump in 1880s Alabama, Helen’s dramatic communication breakthrough is spurred by liberally flowing liquor in set designer Jennifer Zeyl’s kitchy, multi-level drag club.

In a way, it makes sense that Savage would create a twisted version of The Miracle Worker that is simultaneously utterly irreverent and peculiarly inspiring. In addition to doling out graphic yet plain-spoken advice in his “Savage Love” columns, he is also the founder of the It Gets Better Project.

In Miracle!, Savage is projecting his anti-bullying message for gay teenagers onto Helen, who initially appears to be little more than a grotesque caricature shoved onstage by both “her” parent and the playwright just to elicit shocked, cringing laughs from the audience. However, as the play evolves — or devolves, depending on your particular tolerance for scatological gay slang, lesbian open mic poetry, and the sight of a deaf-blind young man forced to chug a bottle of vodka — Helen’s story comes to represent a call for acceptance, tolerance and communication between people of all stripes.

According to Savage, the decision to relocate Helen Keller's story to the Seattle drag scene was a complicated one, mainly driven by his interest in injecting a sense of the unexpected into a well-worn narrative. "I love drag, used to do drag, and think drag is a great way to break a play open and make it new," he explained. "By taking an iconic play, The Miracle Worker, and re-working it — by putting it in drag, by re-imagining all the characters — we make the familiar unfamiliar and the 'miracle' winds up sneaking up on the audience."

Intiman’s resurrector, Andrew Russell, seems to have the right attitude about the play, which the theater has rated NC-17 “due to simulated sexual acts, graphic language, and fabulous drag performances.” Appearing on stage on opening night in milky white high heels, a purple tube top, and a double loop of pearls, Russell referred to himself as “the clearly reputable artistic director” and advised the audience “if you don’t like what you see tonight, you can just light a candle for it and have a moment of silence.”

Personally, I’ve stowed all my candles in the back of the closet and haven’t stopped talking about Miracle! since I staggered out of the theater, my mind reeling with the hysterical obscenity of it all.

If you go: Miracle! runs through Aug. 25 at Intiman. A ticket is $30. For more information, visit www.intiman.org.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors