Schematic and only as rewarding as your sensibility allows, is Three Days to See, an impressionistic piece directed and conceived by Transport Group artistic director Jack Cummings III, who draws nearly all of its text from the diaries of Hellen Keller. The evening is built for an ensemble of seven performers—of varying ages, genders and ethnicities (objectively it would seem less important what those are particularly than that there is variance)—to move through Helen’s autobiographical life chronologically (the story may move back and forth a little, but the diary excerpts are chronological, and backlooking is her own retrospective POV). Due in part, one would imagine, to Cummings’ experience directing musicals, he brings much to the party in terms of movement, choreography and the use of music (most of which references the era of the excerpt being presented at the given moment).
It starts on a troubling note: a few cringeworthy minutes of Helen Keller party jokes, you know the ones, that ignore her humanity and reduce her to blind-and-deaf as a generic target, escalating in tastelessness and frantic delivery until an explosion into genuine Keller language; and objectively, I understand the strategy, a let’s-get-this-out-of-our-system purge for a generation that only knows her as a mascot for the sense-impaired, so that when we get into deep Helen, authentic Helen, cultural icon and devastatingly perceptive commentator on her times Helen, we must come to grips with our own limitations and face the irony; but it doesn’t work that way. Like the wrong opening number (which essentially it is), it sets up a different show than the one Cummings wants us to embrace. Much more effective is what is, in effect, a second opening number, a pantomime—performed to the energetic strains of Benny Goodman’s “Sing! Sing! Sing!”—in which Barbara Walsh plays Annie Sullivan, the teacher (and eventual lifelong companion) who famously broke through the child Helen’s barriers, and the other six trade off playing the child Helen, in a rapid fire montage of scenes depicting the process leading up to that breakthrough.
What makes this more effective, and a far better starting place, is that this is the real set of Helen Keller clichés, for what Cummings is tacitly doing, is blowing through the iconic scenes of William Gibson’s play about this, The Miracle Worker. The beast need not be named formally, nor its rights acquired, for the scenes are also historically true, but they’re the pop-culture images we were weaned on via the feature film (and a subsequent TV movie, in which the actress who once played Helen [Patty Duke] now plays Annie Sullivan). And what this passage does is get the familiar stuff overwith. And it does set up the rest, because what it says is, there’s a whole life of Helen after this, a life most of you don’t know.
It’s a profound life to be sure, and the imaginative and symbolic configurations through which Ms. Walsh and the others—Patrick Boll, Marc delaCruz, Thelma McCarthy, Chianza Uche and Zoe Wilson—deliver the excerpts are engaging enough to sustain a certain steady interest…but not, in the show’s current state, to make Three Days to See compulsively riveting. Basically we’re making measured progress through Helen’s timeline, and the text, on aggregate, is really only that of an average-quality one-woman autobio-play, multifurcated among an ensemble. That may be why it disappoints; because once the text begins in earnest, it’s a very familiar structure, despite the avant garde delivery system.
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