Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, June 23, 2018

MiracleWorkerCast of William Gibson’s ‘The Miracle Worker’ includes Matthew Modine, standing center; at stage right, left to right, Jennifer Morrison, Abigail Breslin and Alison Pill. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK – William Gibson’s play "The Miracle Worker," about the young Helen Keller, the deaf and blind child who could not speak, and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, 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, at Broadway and 50th Street.

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 unhappy memories of time she spent in an orphanage with her younger brother. Annie, for a time, was almost totally blind and underwent many painful operations, which only partially restored her sight.

Yet, what rescues the play from this labored tedium is the dramatic crux of the evening, the battle royal – both physical and psychological – that takes place between Annie and Helen. Helen is performed impressively and, for the most part, almost entirely without words, by Abigail Breslin, from the film "Little Miss Sunshine." Annie is played by Alison Pill, a young actress of remarkable ability. Together, these two women bring a dramatic tension to the play that compensates for the play’s other inadequacies and, unfortunately, makes everything else that occurs on the stage seem superfluous.

When we first meet Helen at home in Tuscumbia, Ala., she is no more than a wild child; her 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 take off.

Slowly, Annie, who has brought Helen a present of a doll, begins teaching her by spelling the letters of the word, D-O-L-L, 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, and Annie quickly quells it 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 a caricature, 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 set design that does not obstruct the audience’s lines of sight. Designer Derek McLane seems to have paid no mind to these hindrances, letting his set partially block some audience members’ views of crucial scenes. (Fortunately, I was not among them.)

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.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment

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