Taming a Child by Setting Her Free
Language is exalted as the miracle maker of “The Miracle Worker,” the potential means of salvation for a knowledge-starved deaf and blind girl named Helen Keller. “One word, and I can put the world in your hand,” Helen’s teacher tells her with fervor. Odd, then, that the sadly pedestrian new production of William Gibson’s 1959 biographical drama is by far most effective when it is wordless.
Helen is played by the 13-year-old movie star Abigail Breslin in Kate Whoriskey’s revival, which opened Wednesday night at the Circle in the Square Theater. And she has a distinct advantage over her more than competent co-star, Alison Pill, who plays Helen’s intrepid teacher, Annie Sullivan: Ms. Breslin has no lines to speak.
When this Helen groans, her flailing arms reaching for something she knows she wants but can’t quite identify, you feel the pure, painful thwartedness of a trapped intelligence searching for release. A matching, agonized frustration contorts the features of Ms. Pill’s Annie as she literally wrestles her pupil into submission. But Ms. Pill must also participate in Mr. Gibson’s dialogue, which 60 years on, sounds less than golden.
In truth, “The Miracle Worker” was always best when it got physical. Writing of the 1959 production in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson lamented its “loose narrative technique,” adding that the play, which had begun as a television version on “Playhouse 90,” was “afflicted with embarrassing offstage voices and gratuitous bits of local color.”
But he had only praise for the fierce performances of the original Annie and Helen, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, who won Oscars for repeating their roles in the 1962 film. The visceral charge that infuses the scenes in which Annie and Helen go to the mat is still terrific in that movie. Like the Broadway production, it was directed by Arthur Penn, who transcended staginess by seeming to turn his camera into an adrenaline-infected participant.
There are, of course, no close-ups in theater. Yet surely this production, the first revival of “The Miracle Worker” to come to Broadway, could have highlighted the play’s strengths more effectively. In following the stormy tutelage of Helen that began with Sullivan’s arrival at the Kellers’ Alabama household in 1887, Ms. Whoriskey’s production never finds its focus. Rather than pulling us into a you-are-there intimacy with its two central characters, it keeps pushing us away, opting for a panoramic view that flatters no one.
The Circle in the Square is an in-the-round theater, a geometric fact that seems to have defeated the designers here. Derek McLane’s set has period furniture suspended above the stage, ready to descend for the various scenes, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting design keeps the full stage illuminated for most of the time. It is often hard not to feel as afloat as the furniture. Nor is it always evident where you are meant to be looking, a problem compounded by Ms. Whoriskey’s often keeping the supporting cast of characters on the stage’s periphery.
Those characters are not, to put it kindly, delicately drawn. They include Captain Keller (Matthew Modine), Helen’s Southern-gentleman father; Kate Keller (Jennifer Morrison), her mother; and James (Tobias Segal), Captain Keller’s grown son by a previous marriage. A by-the-numbers subplot has James struggling to stand up to his neglectful dad, while the Captain’s blustery but soft-centered persona becomes the stuff of jokes that might have been lifted from a 1950s sitcom.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Modine, an appealingly quirky actor on screen, plays his role with Pa Kettle irascibility, at the top of his voice. Attired in Paul Tazewell’s handsome period costumes, everyone appears to have been directed to speak loudly and in italics, as if the audience itself might be hearing-impaired. (The estimable Elizabeth Franz, as Helen’s exasperated aunt, is an exception.)
While good diction is usually a blessing, it is perhaps best not to flag the dialogue here by over-enunciation. It is said of Helen, for example: “She is like a little safe, locked, that no one can open. Perhaps there is a treasure inside.” Or here’s James on what he wants from his father: “My God, don’t you know? Everything you forgot when you forgot my mother.”
Ms. Pill has the bulk of the most inspirational speeches and invocations. And their preachier aspects are underscored by this gifted actress’s electing to portray the combative, outspoken 20-year-old Annie with a touch of the New England spinster. (I occasionally thought of Katharine Hepburn being wry and withering.)
I understand the choice; it suggests the hard-won self-restraint and self-denial of a girl who grew up amid privation and tragedy. And it is certainly nothing like Bancroft’s more openly intense interpretation. But an over-the-top ferocity may be necessary to camouflage the clichés of what Annie has to say. Contained passion makes psychological sense for Annie, but it does the play as a whole no favors.
Ms. Breslin, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” is now probably a tad mature for the role of Helen, who was only 6 when Annie came into her life. You feel that this tantrum-prone girl is big enough to do serious damage when she goes on a tear. But the largeness of this vital, angry Helen is not symbolically inappropriate to a child whose presence overwhelms a household.
The mano-a-mano battles between Annie and Helen remain the play’s most compelling sequences, even if they are undercut by the overall diffuseness of the mise-en-scène. And for the big, wondrous climax, when Helen first comes to grasp what language is while working a pump in the yard, water flows in more ways than one.
How can you not cry, knowing that this breakthrough moment will lead to one of the most astonishing and admirable careers in American history? You are likely to feel, though, that the tears haven’t been truly earned by a production that delivers full emotional frissons only in its final, fail-safe scene.
THE MIRACLE WORKER
By William Gibson; directed by Kate Whoriskey; sets by Derek McLane; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting by Kenneth Posner; music and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; hair design by Charles LaPointe; physical coaching and movement by Lee Sher; executive producer, Red Awning; associate producers, Rosalind Productions Inc., Patty Baker/Anna Czekaj and Goode Productions. Presented by David Richenthal, Eric Falkenstein, Randall L. Wreghitt, Barbara and Buddy Freitag/Dan Frishwasser, Joe and Kathy Grano, Mallory Factor, Cheryl Lachowicz, Martha Falkenberg, Bruce J. Carusi and Susan Altamore Carusi, David and Sheila Lehrer and Lynn Shaw, in association with Connie Bartlow Kristan and Jamie deRoy/Remmel T. Dickinson. At the Circle in the Square Theater, 235 West 50th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours.
WITH: Abigail Breslin (Helen Keller), Alison Pill (Annie Sullivan), Jennifer Morrison (Kate Keller), Elizabeth Franz (Aunt Ev), Matthew Modine (Captain Keller), Tobias Segal (James), Daniel Oreskes (Doctor/Anagnos), Michael Cummings (Percy), Simone Joy Jones (Martha), Yvette Ganier (Viney) and Lance Chantiles-Wertz (Jimmie)