After last season’s exhilarating production of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, the current Broadway revival, staged in the round at Circle in the Square comes as a decided letdown…as I think it might even if comparisons were not invoked.
The play—which originally debuted on television as an installment of Playhouse 90, before being transformed into a stage play and later a film, all three incarnations featuring the same stars, a young Anne Bancroft and a younger Patty Duke (Astin)—is set in the 1880s; and it’s about Helen Keller's first teacher, Anne Sullivan (Allison Pill), and events leading up to the breakthrough in which, due to Annie’s labors, the blind, deaf Helen (Abigail Breslin) finally connected the words of tactile sign language patterns with their practical meanings
To the director Kate Whoriskey’s credit, her revival has a credible energy for a contemporary audience, which is vital for a play that has the potential to creak along like an old stock-and-amateur warhorse. What it doesn’t haver, though, is consistent coherence. Some early scenic transitions are a bit of a challenge to fathom, even if you know the play, partly due to soft diction, partly due to mild performance choices; and while few “in the round” stagings ever favor every audience angle equally, hers maddeningly distances the good portion of viewers positioned in front of two practical doors (entrances to the Keller household), angled and positioned diagonally opposite each other at perimeter points of the oval. The doors, like the frameworks that contain them, are themselves only articulated frames—there are no panels, so you can see through them—but the thick wood framing is heavy enough to be both a distraction and a challenge to the sight-line. Happily, they disappear into hidden traps for long periods of time, but you dread their return, and they’re utterly unnecessary.
Once the play gets rolling, the performances sharpen and gel somewhat, but then you’re aware of a disparity of casting. Ms. Breslin is fine as Helen—a role which requires emotional coherence in a role that consists of pantomime and non-verbal vocalizations—and if Ms. Pill isn’t an ideally charismatic Annie, her feistiness nonetheless wins the audience. Matthew Modine, though, is lackluster as “The Captain”—as they call Mr. Keller, Helen’s ramrod father. And as James, the near-grown son from a previous marriage whom the captain consistently browbeats, Tobias Segal is just gratingly whiny without nuance or the comedic skill needed to shade a character that exists in a persistent state of self-pity. Other roles are performed competently only, with the exception of Jennifer Morrison (best known as Dr. Cameron on TV’s House, M.D.), a welcomely natural presence in the role of Helen’s mother.
The built-in advantage The Miracle Worker has is a kind of power that makes itself manifest even in certain less-than-optimum circumstances. It just tells one of those stories that tug at the heartstrings and celebrate the good in humanity. And this production is able enough to let that power take its rightful hold.
But to quote one of the best bits of direction I ever got—it was from Des McAnuff, about a song I’d written—“It’s good, it moves you. The problem is, it should kill you.” And that’s pretty much the case here. We’re moved.
But unlike Helen, we are not transformed…
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