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Three Days to See

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Barbara Walsh and Patrick Boll
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Even if you don't want to admit it, the nearly three dozen Helen Keller jokes that open Jack Cummings III's new Transport Group show, Three Days to See, are pretty funny. The seven cast members parade about the stage of the New York Theatre Workshop theater, occasionally stopping by one of the downstage microphones to bleat out a gag and its punch line: "Why doesn't Helen Keller mind jokes about her? Because she's never heard one that's offended her." "How did Helen Keller meet her husband? On a blind date." "How did Helen Keller's parents punish her for swearing? They washed her hands with soap and water." The actors are daring you to laugh, and, if you're like most people willing to put political correctness aside for a moment, it's a dare you'll lose.

But something surprising happens about halfway through the exercise: the laughter subsides naturally. It's not that the jokes are less funny, but that the nonstop assault of them is transforming them from one-off bits into a devastatingly shallow portrait of a human being that, you know subconsciously, can't possibly be accurate. You're forced to forget the comedy and ask yourself who the woman was that inspired all this. And once you start down that road, you've got better things to do than laugh. And that, of course, is exactly where Cummings and his crew want to take you—and largely succeed.

Cummings, working with Krista Williams, has adapted the script for Three Days to See from Keller's own writings, and used them to trace the unique life and personality of Keller to a level of depth those jokes don't hint at. Everyone is aware of the basics, at least from William Gibson's 1959 play The Miracle Worker and its subsequent film: An illness rendered Keller unable to see, hear, or speak as a young child, and she learned to communicate via hand gestures through the tough-love techniques of her blind teacher, Anne Sullivan. But much of what happened afterward, as she experienced love, faced death, developed her religion (she believed in God) and politics (she was a committed fan of Lenin), and tried to make the world understand her plight from the inside out, is less well known, and that's where Cummings has focused much of his attention.

Zoe Wilson and the cast
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Much of what he does and how he does it is remarkable, as much for its audacity as its brilliant theatricality. Reconsidering a key scene from The Miracle Worker, Cummings implements a full-stage food fight between performer Barbara Walsh as Sullivan and each of the other actors (occasionally in turn, occasionally simultaneously) as Helen; countless plates of scrambled eggs and forks go flying as Sullivan attempts to teach Anne to eat like a person, rather than an animal, her uncertainty and confusion being translated into a raucous, messy, and unfiltered explosion of violent movement against the blaring Big Band background of Louis Prima's "Sing, Sing, Sing."

Elsewhere, Keller's blow-by-blow account of reading Gone With the Wind in braille is accompanied by heightened, romantic, fairy-tale movement and Antebellum broadness while Max Steiner's classic score of the 1939 film plays over the sound system. Her sparrings with Otto Shramm, who published her books in Germany, take on the accusatory starkness of a military tribunal, a battle of ideas playing out in pinched, epistolary fashion. As she explores the intricacies of her progressive nature, the tables and chairs that are the primary features of Dane Laffrey's set are constantly rearranged to depict the onward march toward Keller's social ideal. And when we arrive at the finale, the lengthy musing on what Keller would do if she were able to see for only three days, the stage becomes, variously, a modest home, the woods, New York City from the Met Museum to Broadway, and more.

Essential to these creations and more is the soundscape crafted by sound designer Walter Trarbach, who gleefully uses songs as ironically broad illustrations of context: Gypsy's overture for the vaudeville section, Show Boat's "Ol' Man River" for a discussion about the races, and Oklahoma!'s "Out of My Dreams" are among the theatrical samplings (though there are many more from a variety of genres). The music always feels correct for the moment, and because it plays nearly continuously, that's a good thing.

This does, however, point to one of the evening's chief flaws: After a while, it becomes almost a case of sensory overload. Silence is deployed only as a punctuation, and is used rarely, at that, so reflectiveness and serenity are not prevailing emotions; and because the audio is often so loud, the actors must shout to be heard over it, and that keeps everything at a single, not-especially-interesting level. The blocking, likewise, is nonstop, moving plain walking to dance (Scott Rink is credited with musical staging) to avant-garde gestures, so it's not always clear where you should be looking or why, and the performers become lost or obscured when things get more frantic.

Although this was almost certainly Cummings's intent, to swing about as far in the other direction as one could be from Keller, it also has something of a dehumanizing effect on the cast, very few of whom project much vividness of their own. Walsh brings her typical, attractive sophistication, and Ito Aghayere and Chinaza Uche respectively unlock, in matters of Keller's faith and relationship to Sullivan and in how she comes to understand love, something quietly affecting. The others (Patrick Boll, Marc delaCruz, Theresa McCarthy, Zoe Wilson) are fine, but struggle more at making the connections fluid.

Even if Three Days to See falls short of the highest ideal it sets for itself, it's an absorbing exercise that accomplishes its chief goal: of making us aware of how serious and real its subject was. Most of us will never understand, and will never have to understand, exactly what she went through and what challenges she had to overcome to achieve what she did. But one thing's for sure: You'll never hear—let alone laugh at—a Helen Keller joke in quite the same way again.

Three Days to See
Through August 16
Theatre 79, 79 East 4th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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