Saturday, March 6, 2010

Not Very Miraculous


The Miracle Worker

A play by William Gibson

Directed by Kate Whoriskey

Starring Allison Pill, Abigail Breslin, Matthew Modine, Jennifer Morrison, Elizabeth Franz, Tobias Segal, Daniel Orsekes, Michael Cummings, Simone Joy Jones, Yvette Ganier, Lance Chantiles-Wertz

Performances began February 12, 2010

Circle in the Square Theater/235 West 50th Street

The Miracle Worker—the heartwarming story of the blind and deaf Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan—might not be a classic, but playwright William Gibson’s melodramatic account can hit the emotional high notes in the right hands.

It’s too bad that Kate Whoriskey’s staging at Circle in the Square wobbles for the most part, starting with Derek McLane’s sets that are lowered into and lifted out of the action. Two large wooden doorways cause sightline problems for audience members, depending on where they sit in the round. It’s especially true for the famously throat-catching finale, with Annie realizing her biggest breakthrough as Helen learned that word “water“ has she felt the liquid on her hands. The pump is in a far corner and, with the Keller family seated around a table at center stage, the view is compromised. Staging the play’s miraculous conclusion for a small section of the audience reduces its primal power.

Whoriskey‘s cast comprises Matthew Modine, making an auspicious Broadway debut as Captain Keller, Helen’s stern father; Jennifer Morrison, who’s a decent Kate, Helen’s loving mother; and Tobias Segal (Keller’s son James), Elizabeth Franz (Helen’s Aunt Ev) and Yvette Gainer (the family maid Viney), all of whom enliven stock parts.

Allison Pill—a young actress who has, in a handful of onstage appearances, shown that she never strikes a false note in her characterizations—is a formidable Annie Sullivan, never eclipsing Anne Bancroft’s legendary portrayal but making the willful, often injudicious teacher all her own. That she looks (Annie’s supposed to be 20) and sounds (a good Boston accent) the part are pluses.

Teenager Abigail Breslin brings to mind Patty Duke’s classic interpretation of Helen as a headstrong young girl, which is not a bad thing. Breslin and Pill’s intensely physical performances during their head-on collisions are the most memorably successful parts of a play that, however burdened by creaky dialogue and melodramatic excess, never fails to stir the soul: even in a competent, flawed production as this.

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