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March 21st, 2010

The Miracle Worker

We hadn't been to the theatre, for--oh, dear--days.  So Ellen go TDF tickets Friday, and last night we headed down on the good old 1 train to 50th Street to the Circle in the Square Theatre, full of happy anticipation.

We'd both read The Miracle Worker as girls.  Ellen found it in the library (she was an inveterate reader of plays) and loved it because it had A Part For Her--even if that part was non-verbal.  I was introduced to it at ballet camp, where I coached my roommate through the napkin-folding scene (she was playing Annie, and had a hard time remembering her lines).  In both our memories, the play was All About Helen and Annie, with nobody else on stage much at all, and certainly not saying anything very interesting.

This is not, as it turns out, the case.  The Miracle of the title seems to refer to Annie Sullivan's bringing understanding not only to Helen Keller's dark and silent world, but to the rest of her family as well.  Everyone learns a Valuable Lesson about tough love and mutual respect and high expectations that is just as fashionable now as it was in 1960, when William Gibson won a Tony for it.  Despite a certain patness in the structure (Helen's father learns to be easier on his son as he is learning to be harder on his daughter; Annie's own damaged heart opens in concert with Helen's ability to interact usefully with the world), it's a lovely play, well-written, well-woven, a little sentimental, but not excessively so.

Kate Whoriskey's production suits the play admirably--no-nonsense, fast-moving, beautifully dressed and choreographed.  The set is spectacular--an oval stage, painted like a flowery Victorian carpet, with furniture suspended above it at different heights, to be lowered as needed.  Doors and windows and the iconic pump around which the climactic scene revolves rose from the stage floor as needed, defining the yard, the family dining room, Annie's room, the Perkins School for the Blind. The costumes were gorgeous (particularly Mrs. Keller's beautifully draped and buttoned bustled and pleated gowns).  I could have lived without Annie Sullivan's writhing and lavishly bruised and sore-pocked young brother dying noisily in her arms in the middle of the second act, but I'm sure she could have, too. 

That inexplicable moment of ham-fisted over-acting was, for me, iconic of what kept this Miracle Worker from working a real miracle for me.  When the acting was good, it was wonderful.  But when it was bad (and Little Jimmie was pretty dreadful), it threw everything off-track.  Luckily, it was mostly good.  Abigail Breslin (from Little Miss Sunshine) was beyond remarkable.  You could see her thinking, reacting, trying to figure out how to deal with a world that was, to her, a frustrating void filled with physical sensations over which she had no control.  Her tantrums were real responses to real pain--although not the pain her parents thought she was feeling.  Her focus never wavered, her intensity never lessened.  When she understood water, you knew she understood it, down to her last molecule.  Alison Pill (who has done a lot of stage work, most notably in The Lieutenant of Inishmore) matched her perfectly.  Her Annie is tough, rude, pugnacious, intelligent, and stubborn as a dog looking for that bone he just knows he buried around here somewhere.  They were both acting their socks off, of course they were, but it didn't look like acting.  It looked like living, and it was by turns chilling and painful and enthralling, but never embarrassing.

Matthew Modine as Captain Keller, on the other hand, was a professional turning in a professional's performance of a blustery but slightly weak-natured man who treated his grown son like a child and then wondered why they didn't get along.  I could see every beat and every gesture, and it all felt, well, contrived.  And when he lost his temper--well, all I saw was a guy shouting lines.  Which was more than I saw in Tobias Segal as Helen's snarky half-brother James, who delivered all his lines (badly, in an accent that skated between Generic Southern Drawl and High British and Heaven Alone Knows What), and rushed around a certain amount.  From time to time he burst out in a spray of saliva and an almost incomprehensible rush of words that was supposed to convey Strong Feeling.  There was no coherent character there, no sense he even understood what the play was about or his part in it.  He was, in fact, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful, and shattered the focus of every scene he had a part in.  I felt sorriest for the beautiful and poised Jennifer Morrison, who did her level best to make a real person out of Kate Keller while surrounded by fricking idiots, and, remarkably, mostly succeeded.  So did Yvette Garnier, who brought considerable dignity to the obligatory Faithful Family Retainer part of Viney, and Michael Cummings as her son Percy, whose unenviable task it was to wait on Annie and Helen in the garden house while Annie was teaching Helen to eat with a fork.  We saw him in Joe Turner's Come And Gone, and he's good.  I hope some day soon to see him in a part that does not require him to wear ragged clothes and go barefoot.  He deserves better.

Final judgment?  It's a good, old-fashioned play.  Go see it for the costumes and the production and the good parts of the acting.  And when a young man in a straw boater enters, admire the women's costumes until he goes away. 


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