By Lucy Komisar
Helen (Abigail Breslin) is 10, a wild child, throwing tantrums, screaming. Annie (Alison Pill) is 20, saucy and opinionated. She says, The only time I have trouble is when I’m right which is so often.
Both of them are whip-smart as well as strong-minded, and William Gibson’s 1985 play tells the fascinating story of how teacher Annie Sullivan got Helen Keller, deaf and blind since infancy, to understand, to touch-sign, and to express herself so brilliantly that she became a world-famous traveler and lecturer. The fact that all this occurs in a small town in 1880s Alabama makes it the more astonishing.
The play and the story start out with Annie taming an animal. Helen is uncontrollable, she spits. Her scream is a cry from the heart that she can feel but cannot hear herself. Annie is tough – made tougher in battles of wills by growing up in an orphan asylum — and throws water on her. Then Helen learns about a pump. Annie forces her to eat with utensils, to use a napkin – and to fold it. She teaches her the names of things and feelings by spelling them out on her hands.
She has to confront Helen’s blowhard father, Captain Keller (Matthew Modine), a newspaper publisher, who is rather sexist. He announces that he’s not used to rudeness in servants or women.
Kate Whoriskey’s theater-in-the-round production is generally well-acted. Breslin and Pill are mesmerizing, though Matthew Modine as Helen’s father is sometimes flat and one dimensional.
The Captain’s insensitivity is underlined by his lack of affection towards the jealous Jimmie (well-played by Lance Chantiles-Wertz), his son by his late wife. Jennifer Morrison does fine as Kate, Helen’s mother, expressing the understanding her husband lacks.
But the in-the-round staging doesn’t always work; it is visually choppy. You sometimes don’t know where to look. Except, when Annie and Helen are on stage, all eyes are there.
The Miracle Worker. Written by William Gibson; Directed by Kate Whoriskey. Circle in the Square 235 West 50th Street, NYC. 212-239-6200. Opened March 3, 2010. http://www.miracleworkeronbroadway.com/