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The Miracle Worker by William Gibson – Alison Pill, Abigail Breslin – Broadway Theater Review

 

STRONG-WILLED WOMEN

 

picture - The Miracle WorkerTheater Review

by Cindy Pierre

published March 21, 2010

 

The Miracle Worker

now playing on Broadway at Circle in the Square

 

Few events or programming could kick off the 30th anniversary of Women's History Month better than William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, a woman-centric display of strength and ne'er-say-give-up now celebrating a 50-year anniversary of its own at Circle in the Square.  Featuring not one but two feisty female characters (and future suffragettes) with iron wills, The Miracle Worker is a  marketing campaign for Women's Lib that is sure to do in entertainment what President Carter did in politics 30 years ago.  But while the production does well to enforce female resilience and the impetuousness of youth with its stellar performances, it overbears with nearly everything else.

 

Signs of imbalance in the production appear even before you take your seat.  Derek McLane's ornate pieces of furniture suspend from the ceiling in a marvelous sight that quickly loses its wonder when you realize that you're being cheated out of the element of surprise.  It may be a practical set-up, but for the next two hours, the props are lowered and withdrawn from sight so many times that one begins to imagine that there is a giant puppeteer looming above the stage.  And rather than provide background, the scenery and its changes compete with the plot and the performances for the main attraction. Fortunately, both put up an admirable fight.

 

picture - The Miracle WorkerThe Miracle Worker is the story of Annie Sullivan, the young teacher played exquisitely by Alison Pill, who would clear up the darkness of deaf, blind, and mute student Helen Keller (Little Miss Sunshine's Abigail Breslin) using uncompromising means.  Having experienced a difficult upbringing and a period of blindness herself, Annie's familiarity with adversity breeds a strength in her that she wants to develop in Helen.  After protests from her parents Kate (House's Jennifer Morrison) and Captain Keller (Matthew Modine), Annie is allowed to spend two weeks in seclusion with Helen to teach her the gift of sign language through her palms.  This would be the beginning of Helen's comprehension of the world, and its comprehension of her.

 

While repetition proves to be a good means of instruction for Helen, it fails to have the same effect on the audience.  The ghost of Jimmie (Lance Chantiles-Wertz), Annie's deceased, crippled little brother, makes several appearances that are as unforgettable as they are eerie, but his presence is as disembodied to the plot as his manifestation is. Chantiles-Wertz does his best to contort his frail body to Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen's spooky sound effects, but because the details of his relationship with Annie and the circumstances of his death are quickly glossed over, his movements come off as exaggerated and sensational.  The performances of the remainder of the cast are right on the mark.

 

picture - The Miracle WorkerThough there appears to be a smaller gap in age between Pill and Breslin than the 14 years that separate their counterparts, they settle into their roles quite easily once you suspend your disbelief for 13-year old Breslin playing a 6-year old.  Director Kate Whoriskey consistently creates compelling moments on stage, but they are superseded whenever Pill and Breslin interact.  Circling and challenging each other like two mistresses of the same domain, they exchange power until the very last moment, each refusing to be bested.  But it's not all war.

 

There are eureka moments and heartfelt embraces; comedy and pain.   There is much of what most would expect to be part of a good drama's makeup.  All except a superficial insertion of a weighty subplot and a staging strategy that is too distracting. 

 

2010 is a poignant time for The Miracle Worker to be revived because the theme this year for Women's History Month is “writing women back into history.”  And as Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan were women who fought and achieved for themselves before they fought and achieved for womanhood, the fading ink on their stories needs to be darkened.  But before we can celebrate their impact to the fullest extent, we need to see a more integral production that is commensurate to the material.

 

cindypierre @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by Joan Marcus

 

 

 
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