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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
THE MIRACLE WORKER
at Circle in the Square

SOMETHING LESS THAN A MIRACLE
By ROBERT CASHILL

  Ph: Joan Marcus

William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker is one of those plays cursed by a perfect film adaptation. The four Tonys it won in the 1959-1960 Broadway season have come to be outshone by its hers-and-hers Oscar wins in 1962 for Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, who, again under Arthur Penn’s sensitive direction, beautifully adapted their stage performances for the screen. Two just-adequate TV versions, in 1979 and 2000, and Gibson and Penn’s reteaming for the unmiraculous stage sequel Monday After the Miracle (1982) have only added to its luster.
 
In its 50th anniversary season, Miracle has finally been recalled to Broadway, in a new production that opens on the same history-making day teacher Annie Sullivan met the blind, deaf and incorrigible Helen Keller in 1887. But the revival makes no history. Director Kate Whoriskey, who mounted the Pulitzer-winning Ruined last season, has underplayed the initial bristling friction between Sullivan and Keller. This focuses our attention on other themes in Gibson’s play, like the tension between North and South a generation after the Civil War (Sullivan, the ill-bred, too-young, shoot-from-the-lip Bostonian, upsets the house of the genteel Alabamans who have hired her as governess), the mysteries of language and communication, and how a family’s love can come to be a chokehold. Indeed, Alison Pill’s Sullivan is so committed to the power of education that the play’s lump-in-the-throat final line doesn’t pay off as it would have if Whoriskey had let her and Abigail Breslin’s Keller really get into the rough-and-tumble of their relationship. The fight scenes are timid, the production fearful of emotion. Neither of these fine actresses registers all that forcefully.
 
Part of the problem is that this show is in desperate need of a proscenium. Staging it in the round does its foursquare, Eisenhower-era construction no favors. Given a press seat I still couldn’t see many of the key moments, or I should say I saw the key moments as played by the backs of Matthew Modine, Tobias Segal, Elizabeth Franz and the rest. (The moment with the key was one of them.) Derek McLane’s doorways, tables and other furniture are fine when suspended in mid-air but problematic onstage, where they’re perpetually in the way. Kenneth Posner’s handsome lighting does its best to conceal the wires though can do nothing to conceal that this might work better with marionettes than with people. One consistent highlight, not dependent on the staging: a fine, mandolin-inflected score by sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
 
This all said, the show got a lift from the many kids in the audience the afternoon I attended. There to see the 13-year-old Breslin, it was new to them, and perhaps the one miracle we can hope for from this workmanlike, uninspired production is a new generation of theatergoers.

 


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