How many times have we witnessed a tantrum and wished that someone, any one would intervene? "The Miracle Worker," which returned to Broadway last night, is that "Supernanny" fantasy come true: A new governess arrives in the middle of a dysfunctional family and teaches everybody basic social skills.
Of course, this isn't just a case of bad manners. The difficult child, Helen Keller, is deaf, blind and spoiled.
Helen (Abigail Breslin, of "Little Miss Sunshine" fame) has never been taught the basics of language -- and discipline, for that matter -- by her folks (Matthew Modine, Jennifer Morrison). They are 19th-century Southerners who mean well and love their offspring but have no clue how to handle Helen.
Based on a true story, William Gibson's 1959 play is ruthlessly efficient, and it's hard not to get caught up in the suspense. Helen's clearly smart, so her tutor, Annie Sullivan (Alison Pill), is bound to get through -- it's not a matter of "if" but "how."
When Helen finally understands the link between words and concepts, the resolution's inevitability adds to its emotional impact. It's tear-jerking in a deeply satisfying way, and Pill and Breslin sell the scene without cheapening it, with a mix of tenderness, relief and elation.
It's the high point of a production that feels too timid.
Physicality is key to "The Miracle Worker." Even before she learns to harness the sensation, touch is everything to Helen, who eats with her hands and loves to cuddle. In addition, the play is built like an extended showdown -- from seething animosity to full-on fights -- between Helen and Annie, so it requires a certain fearless abandon.
As directed by Kate Whoriskey ("Ruined"), the production tones down this potentially unsettling intensity. The show lacks the balls-out impact of the 1962 movie adaptation (which starred Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, from the original Broadway cast), in which Helen was right out of "The Exorcist" and her tussles with Annie felt incredibly visceral. Here, the key breakfast scene during which Annie first challenges Helen's reign over the household is overchoreographed and underwhelming.
That the theater is in the round adds more burdens. The set distractingly hangs from wires above the stage, and is lowered up and down depending on the scene. Worse, sections of the audience can't see the actors' faces during key moments -- and there's only so much you can express with the back of your head.
For a show about the importance of communication, the irony is a bit too rich.
Language is exalted as the miracle maker of “The Miracle Worker,” the potential means of salvation for a knowledge-starved deaf and blind girl named Helen Keller. “One word, and I can put the world in your hand,” Helen’s teacher tells her with fervor. Odd, then, that the sadly pedestrian new production of William Gibson’s 1959 biographical drama is by far most effective when it is wordless.
Helen is played by the 13-year-old movie star Abigail Breslin in Kate Whoriskey’s revival, which opened Wednesday night at the Circle in the Square Theater. And she has a distinct advantage over her more than competent co-star, Alison Pill, who plays Helen’s intrepid teacher, Annie Sullivan: Ms. Breslin has no lines to speak.
When this Helen groans, her flailing arms reaching for something she knows she wants but can’t quite identify, you feel the pure, painful thwartedness of a trapped intelligence searching for release. A matching, agonized frustration contorts the features of Ms. Pill’s Annie as she literally wrestles her pupil into submission. But Ms. Pill must also participate in Mr. Gibson’s dialogue, which 60 years on, sounds less than golden.
In truth, “The Miracle Worker” was always best when it got physical. Writing of the 1959 production in The New York Times, Brooks Atkinson lamented its “loose narrative technique,” adding that the play, which had begun as a television version on “Playhouse 90,” was “afflicted with embarrassing offstage voices and gratuitous bits of local color.”
But he had only praise for the fierce performances of the original Annie and Helen, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, who won Oscars for repeating their roles in the 1962 film. The visceral charge that infuses the scenes in which Annie and Helen go to the mat is still terrific in that movie. Like the Broadway production, it was directed by Arthur Penn, who transcended staginess by seeming to turn his camera into an adrenaline-infected participant.
There are, of course, no close-ups in theater. Yet surely this production, the first revival of “The Miracle Worker” to come to Broadway, could have highlighted the play’s strengths more effectively. In following the stormy tutelage of Helen that began with Sullivan’s arrival at the Kellers’ Alabama household in 1887, Ms. Whoriskey’s production never finds its focus. Rather than pulling us into a you-are-there intimacy with its two central characters, it keeps pushing us away, opting for a panoramic view that flatters no one.
The Circle in the Square is an in-the-round theater, a geometric fact that seems to have defeated the designers here. Derek McLane’s set has period furniture suspended above the stage, ready to descend for the various scenes, and Kenneth Posner’s lighting design keeps the full stage illuminated for most of the time. It is often hard not to feel as afloat as the furniture. Nor is it always evident where you are meant to be looking, a problem compounded by Ms. Whoriskey’s often keeping the supporting cast of characters on the stage’s periphery.
Those characters are not, to put it kindly, delicately drawn. They include Captain Keller (Matthew Modine), Helen’s Southern-gentleman father; Kate Keller (Jennifer Morrison), her mother; and James (Tobias Segal), Captain Keller’s grown son by a previous marriage. A by-the-numbers subplot has James struggling to stand up to his neglectful dad, while the Captain’s blustery but soft-centered persona becomes the stuff of jokes that might have been lifted from a 1950s sitcom.
It doesn’t help that Mr. Modine, an appealingly quirky actor on screen, plays his role with Pa Kettle irascibility, at the top of his voice. Attired in Paul Tazewell’s handsome period costumes, everyone appears to have been directed to speak loudly and in italics, as if the audience itself might be hearing-impaired. (The estimable Elizabeth Franz, as Helen’s exasperated aunt, is an exception.)
While good diction is usually a blessing, it is perhaps best not to flag the dialogue here by over-enunciation. It is said of Helen, for example: “She is like a little safe, locked, that no one can open. Perhaps there is a treasure inside.” Or here’s James on what he wants from his father: “My God, don’t you know? Everything you forgot when you forgot my mother.”
Ms. Pill has the bulk of the most inspirational speeches and invocations. And their preachier aspects are underscored by this gifted actress’s electing to portray the combative, outspoken 20-year-old Annie with a touch of the New England spinster. (I occasionally thought of Katharine Hepburn being wry and withering.)
I understand the choice; it suggests the hard-won self-restraint and self-denial of a girl who grew up amid privation and tragedy. And it is certainly nothing like Bancroft’s more openly intense interpretation. But an over-the-top ferocity may be necessary to camouflage the clichés of what Annie has to say. Contained passion makes psychological sense for Annie, but it does the play as a whole no favors.
Ms. Breslin, best known for her Oscar-nominated performance in the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” is now probably a tad mature for the role of Helen, who was only 6 when Annie came into her life. You feel that this tantrum-prone girl is big enough to do serious damage when she goes on a tear. But the largeness of this vital, angry Helen is not symbolically inappropriate to a child whose presence overwhelms a household.
The mano-a-mano battles between Annie and Helen remain the play’s most compelling sequences, even if they are undercut by the overall diffuseness of the mise-en-scène. And for the big, wondrous climax, when Helen first comes to grasp what language is while working a pump in the yard, water flows in more ways than one.
How can you not cry, knowing that this breakthrough moment will lead to one of the most astonishing and admirable careers in American history? You are likely to feel, though, that the tears haven’t been truly earned by a production that delivers full emotional frissons only in its final, fail-safe scene.
Perhaps the story of Helen Keller's early life and the teacher who helped her thrive despite extreme disabilities could be the basis of a great play. But The Miracle Worker ain't it.
William Gibson's melodrama, now in revival (**½ out of four) at Circle in the Square Theatre, first and last graced Broadway a half-century ago. It earned Tony Awards for the playwright, director Arthur Penn and an up-and-coming actress named Anne Bancroft.
Bancroft was cast as Annie Sullivan, the feisty lass who defies all odds to give the gift of language to a blind, deaf Helen, played by a teenage Patty Duke. Bancroft and Duke reprised their roles in a 1962 film adaptation, both winning Oscars.
Modern audiences are far less likely to be seduced by Gibson's earnest, hokey dialogue or, given the movie's enduring popularity, surprised by the particulars of Helen's and Annie's struggles. And Kate Whoriskey directs the new production, which opened Wednesday, with a literal-minded reverence that only emphasizes its banal and dated qualities.
But like the original, this Miracle Worker benefits greatly from the involvement of two dynamic young actresses. In her Broadway debut as Helen, adorable Little Miss Sunshine star Abigail Breslin manages to make her mute, tortured character moving without turning her into a creature of pity. Breslin's grunts and grasps convey not only frustration but also unmistakable curiosity. She lets us see in Helen the same intellectual potential and thirst for life that Annie recognizes.
As Annie, Alison Pill faces a challenge even more daunting than communicating without words: making stilted words seem more like candid, authentic speech. Having sparkled in a diverse assortment of works on and off Broadway, Pill can't help but seem a bit confined here. Still, her vigorous intelligence and unmannered strength do Annie justice.
The supporting actors generally don't fare as well. The normally capable and likable Matthew Modine is trapped as a cartoonishly stentorian Captain Keller, who Gibson and Whoriskey would have us believe was really a softy beneath all his bellowing. Tobias Segal suffers similarly as his son from a previous marriage, portrayed here as a peevish man-child desperate for Daddy's approval.
As Kate Keller, Helen's devoted mom, Jennifer Morrison looks lovely but is called on to do little more than suffer and exude feminine charm — and, occasionally, wisdom. In the opening scene, Kate refers chidingly to "men and their battle scars," and the play can be cloyingly quaint in paying homage to the resilience and good sense of women.
But let's at least give Miracle Worker's late author, and its new director, credit for good intentions — and for providing yet another pair of exceptional women with a vehicle, however rickety.
Circle in the Square's last tenant, "The Norman Conquests," was a superlative example of the enhanced scrutiny and heightened involvement that can be afforded by in-the-round presentation. "The Miracle Worker" is a less ideal fit; its staging in this first Broadway revival appears shaped more by necessity than by concept. Kate Whoriskey directs William Gibson's midcentury chestnut with sensitivity, if not with any startling new insight. But the volatile battle of wills between the young Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, remains dramatically and emotionally effective, played with conviction by Abigail Breslin and Alison Pill.
Originally a 1957 teleplay, the drama was drawn from Keller's autobiography and Sullivan's letters. Gibson reworked the material for Broadway in 1959 and for the screen three years later, in both cases directed by Arthur Penn and starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. That film version, which netted Oscars for both stars, remains a vivid benchmark for the raw intensity of the clashes between Keller and Sullivan.
Those fight scenes retain their visceral charge in Whoriskey's staging, even if the configuration at times partially obstructs the two protagonists' faces during crucial interactions.
In plays such as "Reasons to Be Pretty," "Blackbird" and "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," Pill has demonstrated her skill at animating prickly contemporary women who can go from sullen vulnerability into bellicose attack mode in a flash. She's no less convincing as 20-year-old Boston-Irish Sullivan, hired in 1887 by the Keller family in Alabama to serve as governess to Helen, left deaf and blind by an illness in her infancy.
Despite her lack of teaching experience, Annie perceives Helen's problem as an excess of pity and indulgence in place of communication. Her mother, Kate (Jennifer Morrison), showers the child with unconditional love, while her father (Matthew Modine), a stiff-backed former Confederate Army officer, believes she's beyond help. As a result, tantrum-prone Helen is an almost feral creature. Her instinctive intelligence means she knows how to get what she wants, delivering a well-aimed kick or left hook when she doesn't.
Annie's refusal to let sympathy condition her treatment of Helen is matched in Pill's performance by her total absence of self-pity. She speaks of her awful past -- her orphanage upbringing, the death of her young brother, overcoming her own blindness -- with hard-edged matter-of-factness. And the Kellers' skepticism about her youth and outspoken attitude bounces right off her. Only in letters to her mentor are the doubts beneath her headstrong toughness aired.
Breslin is equally persuasive, her cherubic features sharply contrasted by evidence of the plotting going on inside Helen's intellectually starved head. In a confident stage debut without the benefit of dialogue, the young thesp stays firmly in character whether violently acting out, howling with frustration, clamoring for comfort or fooling Annie with a false promise of obedience. Without shrinking in height, Breslin appears to ball up like a human fist, merely by planting her feet on either side of her and tightening her jaw.
The close moments between teacher and student are the production's most affecting, particularly their first encounter, in which the importance of touch is established, and the alphabet "game" that will become Helen's key to learning is introduced.
Their brawls, of course, are the dramatic high points, led by the famous breakfast smackdown during which scrambled eggs fly as Annie banishes everyone else from the room until Helen learns to eat with utensils from her own plate.
Director Whoriskey ("Ruined") fosters a strong connection to the three characters at the play's center. The allegiances and conflicts among Helen, Annie and Kate (played with touching delicacy and warmth by Morrison) are conveyed with real heart. Secondary roles such as Helen's frosty aunt (Elizabeth Franz) and half-brother (Tobias Segal) are somewhat thankless, while Modine is one-note blustery as Capt. Keller, whose softening in the final scene typifies the more perfunctory aspects of Gibson's emotional climax.
Major dramatic license is employed in having Helen grasp the concept of words representing not just tangibles, but also feelings, in a single breakthrough. But the play is no less moving for it. And the core idea - that Annie's perseverance is fueled by her own emergence from darkness, driving her not just to tame Helen but to open her world to knowledge - resonates fully.
Designer Derek McLane economically suggests a comfortable 19th century Southern home with a few pieces of furniture and doorframes. However, the distraction of having them lowered and raised from the flies takes us out of the drama, adding to the feeling that a cozy proscenium stage might have been more accommodating. Paul Tazewell's costumes evoke the period with unfussy crispness, while Kenneth Posner's lighting is especially lovely in intimate moments. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's music, predominantly strings and piano, adds suitably tender or dissonant notes.
At the first press night and reportedly through previews, the audience included an uncommonly high number of children for a non-musical Broadway show. Their quiet attentiveness during the perf indicates that the half-century-old play and Keller's struggle still exert a hold on young imaginations.