Now we can add Abigail Breslin and Alison Pill to the list of actresses who have tackled the roles of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, in the 1950s classic, “The Miracle Worker”, currently running at the Circle in the Square theatre.
The story is a familiar one: born normal, but turned deaf and blind after an early bout of scarlet fever, Helen grows into, quite literally, a “wild child” — uncontrollable, uncommunicative, and, for the most part, unwanted… even by her parents. It is the 1880s, and there aren’t a whole lot of things that can be done with her. Torn between institutionalizing her — which their older son James is adamantly in favor of — and seeking help for her at home, they eventually decide on the latter, and hire young Annie Sullivan to tutor her… if she can.
Annie, of course, brings her own physical and emotional baggage to the Keller family table — she has only recently had her own sight restored, having been blind for a number of years herself, and is haunted every day by horrifying memories of the orphanage in which she and her younger brother grew up — and for most of the play she finds herself engaged in the most delicate kind of balancing act, as she tries to fulfill Helen’s needs even as she struggles to meet her own. The give-and-take, tug-of-war relationship between teacher and pupil is gritty, angry, and raw; Annie senses there is something deep inside Helen — an intelligence worth sharing — that she must somehow coax out of her. But Helen is an unwilling partner at best, and the question soon becomes: does Annie have the strength to succeed?
In the role of Helen — one of the most challenging ever devised for the stage — Abigail Breslin is excellent, all thrashing limbs and inarticulate rage nearly all the time. Equally as tricky is the part of Annie, who almost never leaves the stage and is nearly always accompanied by young Helen; by necessity, Annie has all the lines — it’s a high-wire act of the highest order, a role that requires a tour-de-force performance every night, and Alison Pill pulls it off beautifully. Kudos, too, to film vet Matthew Modine as Captain Keller, Helen’s newspaper publisher father, a man who works with words, understands the importance of words, yet is convinced he is doomed never to hear his own daughter utter a single one. Modine is beleaguered in some scenes, bombastic in others, and never anything less than believable… as is his wife, the frightened but far more fair-minded Kate Keller (it is she who decides to give Annie the chance she deserves), who is ably played by Jennifer Morrison (co-star of TV’s “House”).
Of course, everything leads up to the big breakthrough at the end, the moment at the water pump when Helen reveals that she has learned much more than anyone — even Annie — had thought. It’s a moving moment in a real tear-jerker of a production, and in case you’ve been sitting there wondering: Why revive THIS play? Why NOW? — it does a fine job of providing you with the answer.
In show biz parlance, “The Miracle Worker” has “legs” — it’s a survivor — and it has lasted long enough to stand tall as one of the most memorable plays ever written.
Sadly, dramas — especially ones as serious as “The Miracle Worker” — don’t run for long. This production is scheduled to close April 4th.
Don’t miss it.
THEATRE REVIEW by Stuart R. Brynien