Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Miracle Worker

Photo/Sara Krulwich

In a cruelly ironic jab to Circle in the Square's theater-in-the-round production of The Miracle Worker, many of the audience members will, at one point or another, be entirely blind to what's happening on stage. Thankfully, William Gibson's script--which has aged surprisingly well--is far from deafening, and is neatly delivered by a talented cast.

The tear-jerking plot, as you've surely seen (or seen parodied) before, is based on the true story of the attempts of twenty-year-old Annie Sullivan (Alison Pill) to teach the blind and deaf Helen Keller (Abigail Breslin) to understand words. Along the way, she must deal with Keller's coddling mother (Jennifer Morrison), strict yet spoiling father (Matthew Modine), as well as with her own youth and inexperience. Of these four main characters, Morrison has the least the work with; that she still finds a way to show a heartfelt resolve beneath those manners is a sign of how well Kate Whoriskey works with her actors. (In other words, anyone would struggle to stage The Miracle Worker in the round: a play built around still, quiet, and tentative moments has few opportunities to cheat out.)

In any case, The Miracle Worker leaves little room for directorial "meddling," and the production is very smoothly and straightforwardly done, so as to leave the emphasis on the story itself. Derek McLane's set slides up as easily from the floor as it glides down from the sky, and Kenneth Posner's lighting neatly focuses the action during Sullivan's nightmares of childhood (even when her back is to the audience). It's all so functional, in fact, that we forget the old-timey bits (the social status of the 1880s) and focus entirely on the bravura performances from Breslin and Pill.

It's no surprise to find Pill entirely capable of playing this strong woman--her rigorous convictions were cemented in The Lieutenant of Inishmore, her determination in Mauritus, and her fiery doubts in Reasons To Be Pretty: she's been engineered to crisply say things like, "You think I'm so easily gotten rid of? I have nothing else to do." Her steeliness is abetted by those killer shades of her (the ones for her own ocular conditions): "The room's a wreck, but her napkin is folded," she says, staring down an increasingly flustered Modine. It's a delight to find her matched by Breslin, who has the near-impossible role of playing a wild child without sinking to cheap melodrama. Though she has no vocabulary, she is filled with an expressive language, a wide range of frustrated emotions. When she fights with Sullivan, unwilling to use a spoon, there is a moment when she realizes how useful the spoon can be--her face lights up--and then quickly hides that, and, rebelliously determined not to give in, she flings it to the ground again. These action-packed moments bring out the best of the cast and the director, even if the nuance is unfortunately always lost on a quarter of the audience.

The real miracle of The Miracle Worker is that, despite being entirely predictable, it is still filled with the desperate hopes that make for engaging drama. Though many of the scenes between Keller and Sullivan are based on the same spelled-out repetitions ("It has a name"), neither actress is at a loss for finding new tactics or deeper motivations. When Sullivan pushes to take Keller away from her family and the crippling nature of pity, Captain Keller rebukes her: "This is hardly a war." But Sullivan (and Whoriskey) know better: "Well, it's not love. A siege is a siege." By keeping such high stakes and refusing to indulge in platitudes, the production remains dramatically sound, even when the staging slips.

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