Abigail Breslin, Lance Chantiles-Wertz, Michael Cummings, Elizabeth Franz, Yvette Ganier, Simone Joy Jones, Matthew Modine, Jennifer Morrison, Daniel Oreskes, Alison Pill, Tobias Segal
Everyone knows William Gibson’s 1959 Broadway play The Miracle Worker, based on the story of Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl who, with the help of her young upstart teacher, Annie Sullivan, eventually learns to connect the signed alphabet Sullivan has slavishly taught her with the ability to speak. The play, which originally starred Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke and was adapted for the screen in 1962 with the same leads, is a classic by now, a standard on school reading lists and a staple in the community theatre circuit, and for good reason.
Despite an occasional tendency toward literal-mindedness that keeps the play earthbound rather than letting it soar into uncharted waters, there’s a well-made quality to the play that suits it well. The tension between Annie, the teacher who believes Helen’s behaviors must be retaught and reinforced consistently by her alone, and her parents, who smother the child with smothering, misguided love, makes for a tension-filled evening of theatre.
The role of Helen, adeptly inhabited her by young Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin, requires a feisty young actress who’s willing to let her hair go unkempt and spend much of the play’s duration kicking and screaming on the floor, pulling her castmates’ hair, and imitating Helen’s moans and non-linguistic tics. Breslin rises to the task with aplomb. By the play’s end, we’re fully invested in her captivating take on the character, who makes a full journey from the wild little girl she began as to the future memoirist we see developing just the teensiest bit by the play’s end.
As her teacher, Alison Pill is the standout amongst the cast. With her brazen Boston accent, Pill dominates the stage whenever she makes an entrance. Hers is a performance full of great, over-the-top bravado that never quite verges into the realm of camp. When she leaves the stage, there’s something lacking. The production’s supporting cast, featuring Matthew Modine and Jennifer Morrison as Helen Keller’s parents, makes little impression for better or worse.
Physically, the production, which plays in the round at the Circle in the Square, features some visually intriguing qualities, thanks mostly to Derek Lane’s savvy set design. Furniture descends from the ceiling to take its place when appropriate, and the stage, divided into three levels, can be completely evacuated when necessary, as during scenes set in the vast train station or the claustrophobic Perkins Institute for the Blind, eerily lit by Kenneth Posner.
Director Kate Whoriskey (in vogue of late thanks to Ruined) keeps things moving briskly toward their somewhat predictable conclusion. Entrances and exits have all be adeptly coordinated. While she seems to have focused a great deal of energy on her two leading actresses, however, some of their support seems to be somewhat less compellingly directed. There are interesting choices to be made by actors portraying the roles of Helen’s parents, but here most of the Keller family seem instead to be stuck in some period costume drama rather than viscerally inhabiting the space.
Nonetheless, there’s much to be liked about this production of The Miracle Worker, not least of which being the two above-the-title talents lending their names to this mostly savvy staging. There’s an open quality to the look of the production and a physical animosity between Breslin and Pill that keeps the proceedings moving anxiously forward like a potentially ill-fated boxing match between two formidable lightweights.