By: Isa Goldberg
The 50th anniversary of the Broadway debut of “The Miracle Worker” as revived at Circle in the Square is spelled out, but not necessarily spellbinding. The production rests in the small hands of a child, the Oscar nominated Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Alison Pill as Helen Keller’s teenage mentor Annie Sullivan, the two create resounding chemistry.
That Alison Pill delivers an especially delightful performance will come as no surprise to New York audiences. As the saucy Irish immigrant in Confederate Captain Keller’s post bellum household, she registers with a passionate, rebellious spirit that is couched in sardonic humor. With the fringe of a Boston accent still audible after years in an orphanage (the kind Dickens described), Sullivan brings audacity and hope to a household under siege. Spoon-fed and pissed off, Helen flings food, punches and stabs until she takes the house down with pity.
Matthew Modine adds a crisp, abrupt energy to Captain Keller and Jennifer Morrison as his wife and mother of three captures an ideal of beauty. Family dysfunction is never overlooked by Helen’s older stepbrother James (Tobias Segal) who rankles for attention. And as the caring, wise Aunt Ev, Elizabeth Franz is an understated, albeit forceful presence.
Kate Whoriskey’s production, staged in the round for the first time on Broadway, throws up a natural handicap to anyone who wants to watch it fully. At any given moment some of the physical action has to be played with the actors’ backs to sections of the audience. Under the circumstances spoken words get muffled. Still, thrusting a little discomfort our way serves the story well.
More importantly, Whoriskey rescues the play from the excessive slapping and “water boarding” techniques employed in the 1962 movie that was based on the original Broadway production. Some of those behaviors would appear unacceptable by contemporary standards. Besides, the diminutive Alison Pill sustains ample physicality without Anne Bancroft’s quarterbacking.
Still, William Gibson’s play is a less than intriguing drama. Unfolding with one-dimensional linearity, not much is left to our imagination save Helen Keller’s remarkable accomplishments. The Radcliffe Grad, Suffragette, Diplomat, Author, friend to Presidents and Ambassador for the American Foundation for the Blind, is not depicted here. Rather, we witness the daunting journey to Helen’s humanization and education. Learning to spell by cuffing her hands into Annie’s, she becomes capable of recognizing the physical world – the ability to identify objects by naming them.
Regardless of the inspirational outcome, the tiresome repetition of these frustrating exercises can be boring to watch, if you’re not a child yourself. Clearly, it is better material for children, and there were many at the performance I attended.
There is an overall adeptness to the production that sustains it. Fortunately, the acting is not overly emotional, nor the presentation far too graphic. Morbidity is left out, save for Annie Sullivan’s recollections of her tuberculosis-ridden brother (Lance Chantiles-Wertz) – a passion play of its own.
With the furniture hanging from the ceiling Derek McLane’s set allows us to see the Keller home when we come into the theater before the physical world has arrived. The upper class and well appointed cosmos becomes chaos when Helen enters. Even if the arduous education of Helen Keller isn’t fascinating drama, every step along the way of her triumph is something to savor.
“The Miracle Worker” plays at Circle in the Square, 235 West 50th Street. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 7 p.m. with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For Tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, visit www.telecharge.com or go to the box office.