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Chelsea Cavagnaro, left, portrays Annie Sullivan and Catherine Oliviere plays Helen Keller in the MMAS production of “The Miracle Worker.” (Photo by Laura Gustafson)

MANSFIELD - MMAS is opening its 2016-2017 with the highly charged biographical drama "The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson, based on the true story of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.Sullivan is a feisty Irish teacher determined to rescue her charge, the blind and deaf Keller, from darkness and open her up to her full potential through language. (The pair lived on East Street in Wrentham from 1903 to 1917.)

Keller was left unable to see or hear at only 19 months old after surviving an acute disease, but it is not until she is 6 that her father, Captain Keller (Bruce Church), and his wife Kate (Atia DeRosa) seek help for her. They turn to the Perkins School of the Blind, where Sullivan was a student and recent graduate and is hired to be Keller's teacher.

At the heart of this play, is their combative relationship. Secondary, but also emotionally charged, are the other relationships between Keller and her parents, the Captain and his son (though in this production, daughter), and the Captain and the strong-willed Sullivan. There is also the inner battle that Sullivan has with the guilt she feels for her younger sibling, who died when they both were patients at the Tewksbury Sanatorium in Massachusetts.

Director Meg Quinn Dussault finds balance between those relationships and the other characters, including the servants and Aunt Ev, while keeping the focus on Sullivan and Keller.

However, this balance is sometimes thrown off by an additional character Dussault has added, Sophia, a companion to Sullivan. She's portrayed wonderfully by Julie Belini, the ASL performer for the production, but incorporating Belini as a character rather than just an interpreter has mixed results. While expressing main ideas of the scenes to the audience, it also seems a bit awkward on stage as the other performers don't seem to know how to interact with her.

Church appropriately portrays the Captain as a stoic Southerner who shows little emotion and is instantly taken aback when faced with the strong-willed Sullivan and clearly frustrated with his daughter Jaime.

Samantha Eaton-Roberts as Jaime conveys the essence of the character, sassy as she challenges her father and teases Sullivan about her teaching style, and is ultimately changed by Sullivan's presence.

DeRosa is appropriately polite as the younger second wife to the Captain and concerned as a mother to a child she does not know how to handle.

However, it is Chelsea Cavagnaro as Sullivan who makes this production shine. She is doggedly determined, stubborn and brings not only Sullivan's Irish lilt in her dialogue but also her Irish temperament.

In her early scenes at the school, you see the inner torment Sullivan battles. And her scenes with eighth grader Catherine Oliviere as Keller are charged with energy as she determinedly refuses to accept Keller as someone restricted.

One of the more physical and emotionally charged scenes in the play takes place in Act I when Sullivan asks everyone to leave her with Keller in the dining room, and a battle of wills as well as a physical battle ensues.

Oliviere holds her own during this scene, and though she does not speak through most of the play, her grunts and temper tantrums convey the spoiled wild child Keller had become without discipline. Though occasionally the grunting is a bit overdone, we also get the sense that this is a child who wants to have a voice and be included in the family.

All in all, this high-energy production and Cavagnaro's performance of this real-life miracle worker will inspire audiences.

"The Miracle Worker" runs through Sept. 25 at the MMAS Black Box Theater, 377 North Main St., Mansfield. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $29 general, discount for Thursday tickets purchased in advance. To order: 508-339-2822,