The Miracle Worker
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 10, 2010
For me, the new production of The Miracle Worker was the most uplifting and heart-filling theatre experience since Our Town a year before. Which is not to say that The Miracle Worker is as great a play as Our Town or even particularly the same kind of play. But in celebrating the triumph of the human spirit in such an essential way, William Gibson's play about Helen Keller is a bit of a miracle itself. And the performances of Alison Pill as the teacher Annie Sullivan and, especially, Abigail Breslin as Helen are extraordinary and inspiring.
I'm not sure that people born after Helen Keller died (in 1968) know her story as well as older folks; I remember seeing films and reading stories and books about her in school and certainly watching the original film of The Miracle Worker more than once as a kid. Coming back to the facts of Keller's life years later as an adult, I find that perhaps its most remarkable aspect is that this brilliant woman learned language when she was old enough to remember having done so—having learned it once before in that enigmatic and unknowable way that babies do, only to lose it to the disease which left her deaf and blind at the age of 19 months. She set down this experience at a young age in her slender but moving memoir The Story of My Life and then, half a century later (while she was still alive), playwright Gibson explored her story and opened it up into this, his most famous play.
It's a fascinating drama. It's shaped as the story of a family in crisis: Captain Arthur Keller, a stern Civil War veteran (on the Confederate side), lives in a town in Alabama with his second wife, Kate; a son from an earlier marriage, James; and two daughters from the current marriage, one a babe still in the crib and the other, Helen, unruly and spoiled by a mother and father who pity her but can't figure out how to communicate with her because of her disabilities. Enter Annie Sullivan, a brazen 20-year-old woman sent to the Kellers from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, where she has just completed her studies. Annie, once blind herself, has learned sign language and insight into how to break into the silent, dark world of a child like Helen. Captain Keller is skeptical and often adversarial as he confronts Annie's unorthodox approach to caring for the girl; Kate is more open-minded but wary of Annie's hardness. (The Kellers feel surprisingly like the Bankses in the film Mary Poppins, actually.)
Annie, though, is no Mary Poppins; she has to learn how to work the miracle that will unlock Helen's mind. You probably know that the breakthrough comes at a water pump, when Helen, after weeks of Annie drilling the abstract concepts of letters and words into her pupil, literally pounding them into her hands, finally makes the connection between W-A-T-E-R and the wet cool liquid that as a baby she called "wawa."
The joyous part is that, in this Miracle Worker, when this climactic moment occurs, it feels thrilling and new, even though we know it's coming. Credit goes to Gibson's skillful if sometimes formulaic manner in telling this story, and even more to Pill and Breslin, who take ownership of it on the stage. Pill gives us a plucky, determined, smart, and—probably most important—convincingly young Annie Sullivan; we feel her character flinch and then grow as the challenge of teaching young Helen dawns on her. Breslin is revelatory as Helen; right from her earliest moments on stage, I was aware of the aching, gnawing need that this child has to re-engage with the world around her. Her Helen isn't just a spoiled wild child waiting for someone to love and teach her in the right way—she's a budding genius constantly questing to find what she's missing for herself. Breslin's work would be extraordinary if she had the resume of a Cherry Jones; that she's just 13 (she'll turn 14 on April 14th) and that this is her first stage role makes her performance a bit of a miracle all on its own.
There are, I must report, weaknesses in this production, most of them the fault of director Kate Whoriskey, who is unable to solve the problems of mounting this play in a theatre-in-the-round. The set she employs during most of Act One (designed by Derek McLane) is very off-putting: it consists of roomfuls of furniture floating over the heads of the actors, lowered onto the stage when needed to create the desired setting. A much sparer design in the play's second half proves far more felicitous and suggests how the first half might easily have been improved. Whoriskey also lets the actors playing the grown-up members of the Keller household—Matthew Modine as Captain Keller, Jennifer Morrison as Kate, and Tobias Segal as James—overdo the soap-opera angles of Gibson's script. (Consummate pro Elizabeth Franz, as an elderly relative named Aunt Ev, demonstrates in her too-brief appearances that restraint is the way into these scenes.)
But quibbles aside, The Miracle Worker is the most humane, moving, and inspirational show on Broadway in quite a while, and I highly recommend it. Helen Keller's and Annie Sullivan's stories, each in its own way, exemplify what used to be a core American value—how someone could rise up against seemingly impossible odds to accomplish truly extraordinary things. I felt gladdened to be reminded of that in 2010.