Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Miracle Worker

A more representative name for this production would be simply Worker because little sense of The Miracle is apparent in this first Broadway revival of William Gibson's 1959 play about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. Prime responsibility for this failure lies with the director, Kate Whoriskey, who creates a busy, noisy first act and an anticlimactic second. What a disappointment.

I had really been looking forward to this revival for a number of reasons. I love the 1962 movie starring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. I’ve been impressed by Alison Pill’s work on and off Broadway, as well as in the film “Milk.” I thought she would make a strong Annie. I also was curious to see Abigail Breslin in her Broadway debut as Helen, a blind and deaf child in 1880s Alabama so different from the charming cutie she played in the movie “Little Miss Sunshine.” I wanted to see how she handled the challenge of live theatre in such a physically demanding role.

Unfortunately neither actress lived up to my expectations, although I think they could with better direction. Breslin needs to push to a deeper level, to manifest the profound rage Helen feels trapped in a world in which she can’t understand or communicate. Breslin’s Helen is merely a petulant child. She seems comfortable on stage, which is an accomplishment in itself for a newcomer, and she has a handle on the physical aspects of Helen’s anger, but she comes off as more spoiled little girl than a desperate soul trapped in a world of silence and darkness.

An essential element to the story is the relationship between Helen and Annie, but I never felt a strong bond. Pill is more a stubborn woman doing a job than a teacher driven to unlock Helen’s mind. She goes through the motions, repeatedly spelling out words in Helen’s hand, tackling her to the floor when necessary, but I didn’t feel the passion in the relationship. The director should have discerned this missing ingredient.

She also should have brought the volume down a good bit. Throughout the first act the actors shout at each other. Yes, it’s stressful having a daughter like Helen, but anger and frustration can best be expressed with only occasionally raised voices, not with nearly every sentence at top pitch. The worst offender of this is Matthew Modine, making his Broadway debut as Captain Keller.

The actors don’t just shout, they also move around so much that the stage takes on an almost Grand Central Station swirl. All this noise and busyness signaled many in the audience that they were watching a comedy. This was most screechingly inappropriate in the dining room scene, where Annie has dismissed the family and is locked in alone with Helen to teach her how to sit at the table and eat properly. It’s harrowing in the movie to watch the battle of those two wills, with Helen throwing spoon after spoon, hurling food and plates across the room. The audience perceived this as if watching a teen movie about a food fight in the cafeteria. It’s a grueling scene, not a comic one, but hilarious laughter rang out. It was disturbing to hear.

They laughed again at the poignant exchange between Captain Keller and Annie when he asks her, “Do you like the child?” and she replies: “Do you.” It’s as if Helen is the comic bad girl, not an intelligent human being trapped in disabilities.

Had Whoriskey set a different tone by sharpening her actors’ performances, this wouldn’t have happened. I expected more from her too, having been deeply moved by her staging of Ruined last year.

Another problem is Derek McLane’s set. It’s difficult to design for a theatre-in-the-round like Circle in the Square, so maybe the space is more to blame, but I missed a great deal because my view was blocked by a door frame that signifies the transition from inside to out. Even when scenery wasn’t in the way, the nature of theatre-in-the-round being what it is, actors often had their backs to me. I was shut out of the crucial scene of Helen’s breakthrough, when she finally understands that the movements Annie has been making on her hand spell words, and those words have meaning. Breslin faced away from me so I couldn’t see the revelation that should have transformed her. Circle in the Square is one of my favorite Broadway theatres, but this show would have been better off somewhere else.

The one element of the story that does come off well is Jennifer Morrison’s portrayal of Mrs. Keller. She captures the conflict of a mother torn between the desire to cuddle and spoil her child and the desire to help her learn to communicate. This is her Broadway debut and she should be proud of it.

As should members of the creative team. Paul Tazewell’s Victorian costumes are lovely and Kenneth Posner’s lighting is effective. For the most part, Lee Sher has done a good job with the physical coaching and movement. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen create original music and sound designer.

The original 1959 Broadway production starred Bancroft as Annie and Duke as Helen. It won six Tony Awards, including Best Play in 1960. They repeated their work for the film version, each winning an Academy Award. I made the mistake of pulling my copy of the movie off the shelf over the weekend and watching it. That certainly contributed to my displeasure with the Broadway revival. Duke expressed Helen’s fury so fully, and the intense relationship between Helen and Annie is portrayed beautifully by Duke and Bancroft.

Duke later played Annie in a TV film of the work, with Melissa Gilbert as Helen. A theatrical sequel, Monday After the Miracle, also by Gibson, showed Helen and Annie as adults. Gibson died in 2008.

Keller died in 1968 at 80. While the play stops with her childhood discovery of words and their meaning, her learning did not. She went on to Radcliffe College, becoming the first blind and deaf student to graduate from a major university. While there, she wrote her first book, The Story of My Life, an account of her childhood on which The Miracle Worker is based. She went on to write another 11 books.

An activist for many causes, she was a close friend of Mark Twain, who is the one who dubbed Sullivan “a miracle worker.” She was an early suffragette, campaigning for women's rights and becoming a champion for birth control when such a position was considered scandalous. 

She spoke out for the rights of working people and, God love her, was one of the founders of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Her friendship with Sullivan continued. When Sullivan got married, Helen lived with her and her husband. The two women traveled extensively, visiting nearly 40 countries. Sullivan died in 1936 at 60.

Tickets for the 50th anniversary production of The Miracle Worker are available by calling Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, visiting or from the Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50 St. For additional information, visit MiracleWorkeronBroadway.

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