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NY Theater Reviews

Abigail Breslin and Alison Pill/ Ph: Joan Marcus



The story of Hellen Keller and her teacher Annie, and one's struggle to teach the other, is compelling despite its flaws.

William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker, about the young Helen Keller (1880-1968), the deaf and blind child who could not speak, and her teacher Annie Sullivan (1866-1936), who taught her to read and communicate through the touch alphabet, recently received its first Broadway revival in 50 years, at the Circle in the Square Theatre. The play also served as the basis of the popular 1962 film "The Miracle Worker," which won Academy Awards for Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, both of whom had starred in the play’s original Broadway production.
Today Mr. Gibson’s play seems at times hopelessly old fashioned, especially in its frequent domestic scenes with the Keller family, and in Annie’s flashbacks of her unhappy childhood memories of her time spent in an orphanage with her younger brother. Annie for a time was almost totally blind and underwent many painful operations that only partially restored her sight.
Yet what rescues the play from this tedium is the dramatic crux of the evening, the battle royal – both physical and psychological – that takes place between teacher Annie and pupil Helen. Helen is performed impressively and for the most part almost entirely without words by Abigail Breslin, from the film "Little Miss Sunshine," and Annie is played by Alison Pill, a young actress of remarkable ability. Together these two women bring a dramatic tension to the play that makes up for its other inadequacies and makes everything else that occurs on the stage seem superfluous.
When we first meet Helen at her Tuscumbia, Alabama home, she is no more than a wild child whose parents can’t control her. Only when Annie arrives from Boston’s Perkins Institute does the struggle to tame Helen start, and Mr. Gibson’s play takes off.
Slowly Annie, who has brought Helen a present of a doll, begins teaching her by spelling the letters of the word "doll" into her hand. When that has been achieved, she attempts to teach her to eat with a spoon. None of this happens without tremendous physical toil. The play becomes a war of these two women’s wills. Interference from Helen’s family does not help, which Annie quickly quells by moving herself and Helen to a separate building on the premises.
Helen’s father, Captain Keller, is played by Matthew Modine, in his Broadway debut, her mother Kate by Jennifer Morrison, her half-brother James by Tobias Segal, and Aunt Ev by Elizabeth Franz. Since none of the play’s secondary roles is more than caricatures, these fine actors are mostly left to fend for themselves.
Director Kate Whoriskey, who last season did a fine job directing Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning Ruined off Broadway, here faces a much larger challenge. Not only is Mr. Gibson’s play problematic, but the Circle in the Square’s egg-shaped playing area requires a thoughtful and careful scenic design that does not obstruct the audience's sight lines. Designer Derek McLane seems to have paid no mind to these hindrances, letting his set partially block some audience members' views of crucial scenes.
Ultimately when Ms. Whoriskey removes all of Mr. McLane’s cumbersome scenery, leaving the performers to act on just a bare stage, the play seems to work better. Only then do we get a clear view of the true dramatic potential of the story Mr. Gibson has been attempting to tell.