I can remember sitting in acting class back when I was eleven, listening yet again to my teacher’s anecdote about the power of being in character. She would whip this one out whenever one of my classmates would let their paramount, pre-teen “reputation” belittle their commitment to the scene. But this story was a secret weapon of hers, whether she knew it or not; no matter how many times I heard it, it never ceased to inspire me. It was the story of Patty Duke’s Helen Keller in the original Broadway production of The Miracle Worker, and how she was so immersed in her blind and deaf character that when a set piece accidently collapsed, sending everyone leaping out of their skin, she didn’t even flinch.
Hearing this story again and again has caused me to have a natural affinity for this play, written by William Gibson. So, naturally, when I heard that The Miracle Worker was returning to Broadway for the first time since its premier in 1959, I knew I had to go. Luckily I got tickets before its premature closing this Sunday, April 4th.
Seeing the show relatively late in its run, I had heard mixed reviews about its in-the-round staging at the Circle in the Square, and as I walked in to the space, I knew instantly what the critics were talking about. The audience was presented with an array of levitating furniture, suspended at various heights, and I felt as though I had accidently walked in to Mary Poppins. Settling into my seat in the top row, I had a sudden premonition that I may be subject to a wicker-framed performance, as one of the porch chairs was dangling conveniently in my line of vision. Luckily, though, as the lights went down, the furniture went up, disappearing into a latticework-framed crevasse. For each scene change, the set would ascend and descend from this ceiling hideaway like spiders on their spindles, allowing for swift scene changes and easy disposal of unnecessary set pieces. However, I found that the 360 degree set up was inappropriate for this type of play. It was an odd juxtaposition of contemporary staging with a late 19th Century setting, and as with many shows in the round, at least one side of the audience would always be robbed of a good view. Despite director Kate Whoriskey’s diagonal blocking and set designer Derek McLane’s three-tiered stage, my sight line was inevitably obstructed at times by a set piece or an actor’s back, leaving me and my surrounding audience members out of key moments in the play.
The show itself, which I happen to love, did not realize its full potential for me in this rendition. My attempts to subvert blocked vision with strategic neck-craning definitely detracted from my experience, but I also found that the show itself was somewhat underwhelming. Much of the play seemed stale to me, and reactions or beats would unfold unnaturally. This lacking sense of organic spontaneity was like a dusting of forensic powder, and I could see the director’s fingerprints all over it. In one particularly labored bit, I could clearly hear Whoriskey’s direction, saying “Try to get Helen to stand nicely for three tries, and on the third one she will stomp away. It’ll be funny.”
Many of the performances themselves were also a bit lackluster–especially by the end–leaving me somewhat disappointed. Alison Pill’s Annie Sullivan started out with great force, her head strong, unshakably determined demeanor commanding the stage. However, by the end of the play, Pill seemed emotionally detached. Though the role is undoubtedly draining, it seemed as though her emotional capacity was exhausted before the play’s poignant culmination, diluting the impact it had on the audience–her relief seemed to be more about the performance being over than about breaking through to her student.
Jennifer Morrison’s Kate Keller and Matthew Modine’s Captain were both less than admirable, exposing another obvious directorial fingerprint–“PROJECT!” Morrison delivered her dialogue with unnecessary strain, as though her years in television erased her memory of how to act naturally on stage. Modine was on emotional autopilot, his every reaction defaulting to anger, which resulted in a performance that was 99.5% bellowed and 0.5% effective.
Abigail Breslin, on the other hand, literally threw herself into the role of Helen Keller. She never lost an ounce of energy or focus throughout the entire two hour production, which is highly commendable considering the amount of thrashing and stomping her role requires. She explored her world with a mischievous curiosity that kept the other actors on their toes, and the exasperation and entrapment she felt as she battled her disabilities was palpable even from the back row.
But despite this show’s many shortcomings, I did find that some of Whoriskey’s directorial choices improved upon other renditions of the show that I have seen. A subplot that can often seem like a tangent is Annie Sullivan’s childhood flashbacks. She is haunted by the spirit of her little brother Jimmie, who died of tuberculosis when they were living in an orphanage together. In the previous renditions I have seen, the role of Jimmie has been contained to the sound booth, manifesting in an ominous voice over. However, Whoriskey chose to bring the role to the stage in brief, dramatically spot-lit flashbacks. Lance Chantiles-Wertz gave an impressive performance, his skeletal body writhing with illness between line deliveries. I found this to be an effective choice on Whoriskey’s part, as it directly reinforced Annie’s steadfast resolve in helping Helen; a child she may have the power to help since she could not save her brother.
Though this production was far from miraculous, it was definitely worth seeing. The story itself prevails as an uplifting tale of triumph, and has never failed to inspire me. I left the theatre with a smile on my face and a decidedly well spent Friday night.