Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 3, 2010
The Miracle Worker by William Gibson. Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Scenic design by Derek McLane. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Kenneth Posner. Original music & sound design by Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen. Hair design by Charles LaPointe. Physical coaching & movement by Lee Sher. Cast: Abigail Breslin, Alison Pill, also starring Jennifer Morrison, Elizabeth Franz, and Matthew Modine, featuring Tobias Segal, Daniel Oreskes, Michael Cummings, Simone Joy Jones, Yvette Ganier, Lance Chantiles-Wertz.
The work itself likely needs no elucidation. The original production opened on Broadway in 1959 and accelerated the rise of its two crowning stars, Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, who respectively played the deaf-mute Helen Keller and her devoted governess-teacher Annie Sullivan. Both actresses recreated their roles in the 1962 film, and two TV adaptations (the first, in 1979, with Duke graduated to the role of Helen) and countless stage productions have helped the work reach subsequent generations, and a priceless (yet strangely respectful) musical South Park parody has helped secure its place in history.
Watching this new production, which has been directed by Kate Whoriskey, you realize that the show has probably never needed that much help, precisely because of how much it says despite saying so little. Many consecutive minutes of stage time pass without words, or by using scarcely more than grunts or miniature acknowledgments. Seemingly half of the dialogue Annie (played here by Alison Pill) speaks is simple nouns and the letters that constitute them, recited as she pounds their sign equivalents into the younger girl's hands. And Helen (Abigail Breslin), of course, can produce only moans and wails in response.
Yet it's a riveting experience anyway, because the tension between the girl who's never known language and the teacher who overcame blindness herself imbues their conflict with substance to make actual speech extraneous. It is, in other words, the theatre doing what it does best: breaking emotions down into their elemental forms and giving them free reign, live before you, to essentialize as many truths about the human experience as they can in two hours. And as it expands to encompass the human yearning for learning, hope against all odds, and even the vitality of adult-child bonds, The Miracle Worker gets to considerably more than its fair share.
So if it sounds like damning Whoriskey's version with faint praise to describe it as adequate, it shouldn't. Gibson stuffed so much of the play's staging into its narrative - particularly in the thrilling breakfast scene in which Annie tries to civilize Helen with silverware, plates, and water jugs to which she's hardly accustomed - that the director needs little more than stage it and polish up the exterior.
Whoriskey has had no trouble with the former task, and Derek McLane's set, which involves a lot of elegant-looking, floating furniture, captures a disorganized mind as well as Paul Tazewell's costumes do the Victorian propriety Helen so innocently threatens. But Whoriskey hasn't delved as fully as she might have into the events' broader significance. Especially in the final scenes, when Helen and Annie's relationship is most rapidly solidifying and Helen's family reaching their own breaking point, the resolutions are slightly more shallow and manipulative than indicative of the dawning of a new chapter in Helen's life.
In terms of the other performers, Matthew Modine channels an effective slow-burn frustration as Helen's father, and Elizabeth Franz an engaging patrician air as her aunt. As Helen's older and moderately rebellious half-brother, Tobias Segal looks and sounds right but plays more combativeness than adolescence, which somewhat harms his parallel story of learning to accept, understand, and communicate with his own father. Jennifer Morrison targets the proper misplaced warmth as Helen's mother, but needs to work on her timing - many of her lines following jokes are drowned out by audience laughter.
There's a lot of that, by the way. The play's reputation may be primarily one of inspiration, but like any great play it never forgets to entertain along the path to enlightenment. Even the most vicious scenes of Helen's teaching percolate with a brightness that keeps you just as energized as Annie and Helen are. So yes, you laugh. But in the moments where all seems lost or the action's resolution unfurls its last surprises, don't be surprised if you find yourself crying as well. That you can experience such a range of feelings by way of so relatively little speech is perhaps the most fulfilling miracle of the many in The Miracle Worker.