March 24, 2010

The Misfortune of "The Miracle Worker"

Girl role models were few and far between when I was growing up. Basically, the real-life candidates boiled down to Anne Frank and Helen Keller.  Both wrote and so were easy for the fledgling writer in me to identify with. But while Frank's story ended tragically with her death in a concentration camp, Keller survived and triumphed over her adversities. I read over and over again the story of how young Helen, who lost both her sight and her hearing when she was 19 months old, was brought out of her silent darkness by Annie Sullivan, a determined young teacher who taught her how to communicate with the world.

I didn’t get to see the original 1959 production of The Miracle Worker, the William Gibson play that dramatized the tumultuous early days of the relationship between Keller and Sullivan and the breakthrough they achieved in the spring of 1887. But I adored the 1962 movie that maintained the Broadway cast of Patty Duke as Helen and Anne Bancroft as Annie. And I welcomed the chance to see the new revival with Abigail Breslin, the Oscar-nominated young actress from the terrific movie “Little Miss Sunshine,” and Alison Pill, one of the best young actresses working in the theater, in those roles.

The actresses don’t disappoint.  Breslin, who is making her Broadway debut, has marvelous stage presence, even though her character, of course, has virtually no lines (click here for a Playbill feature on how she prepares for her performance).  Pill, who at 25 is three years younger than Bancroft was when she first played Annie, brings a different, more girlish, quality to the role but it works wonderfully well. And they get solid support from the rest of the cast, lead by Matthew Modine as Helen’s father Captain Keller and Jennifer Morrison, a co-star on the TV medical series “House” who’s also making her Broadway debut, as her mother Kate Keller.

It’s difficult for the play to have the impact it did 50 years ago.  The dramaturgical preference these days tends toward irony-spiked drama.  But The Miracle Worker is still funny and moving. Even though the emotional final scene is among the best known in contemporary theater, it still touches the heart and wets the eye. Director Kate Whoriskey, who did such a bang-up job with Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Ruined, has crafted a no-nonsense production that cuts straight to the core of the play.  While Paul Tazewell’s period costumes, particularly those for Kate, are both elegant and eloquent (click here to see an article and slideshow about them on the TDF website ).

Where this production falls down—and badly—is in its choice of venue.  The theater-in-the-round configuration at Circle in the Square can be a challenge for most shows. It’s disastrous for this one. Because Helen doesn’t speak, it’s essential to see the expressions on her face.  Because Annie communicates with her pupil by tracing letters in her hand, there’s an inherent intimacy that makes the audience want to lean in close.  Neither is easy to do in this theater’s stadium-like environment.

Reviews for The Miracle Worker have been mixed (mainly praising the actors and panning the production) and the show has been playing to houses that are only two-thirds full. Its producers considered closing but scraped up enough money to keep running through the spring break, with the hope that the show’s old-fashioned wholesomeness will attract the tourist trade.  According to the New York Times, they’ve also begun to market it as an event for fathers and daughters to share.

However, from what I could see at the performance my niece Jennifer and I attended, it seems to be moms who are bringing their daughters to the show. I spotted one mother-daughter pair in the front row across from me and the little girl, about nine, looked enthralled the whole way through.  If you know a little girl, take her whatever your gender. It’s a chance to show her that a girl doesn’t need to kick butt, perform martial arts or even to score a soccer goal to be a hero, that there are other ways to overcome adversity. Sometimes with the utterance of just a single word.

No comments: