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March 18, 2010

Review: The Miracle Worker

by Jesse North

As a nice last-minute rush alternative upon discovering The Addams Family did not have any rush tickets for their matinee performance, I hopped on over to play the ticket lottery for The Miracle Worker. I had good vibes about this lottery, after being skunked by Addams.

For the play about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan who gave her the gift of language, about 15 people entered and the attendant announced they’d be selling 10 lottery tickets. Now keep in mind, it was more like 30 people were playing, since most people register for two tickets. I kept positive and was the fifth name called! The lotto attendant directed the winners to line up in the order our names were picked. We did, but upon directing us to line up in the same order at the box office window to purchase our tickets, the attendant walked away and the order disintegrated. A woman who was called after I was zoomed to the front of the line. I suggested that the woman whose name was called first should be the first to purchase her tickets. The woman protested my suggestion, saying that she was waiting to play the lotto since 11 a.m., and should purchase first. I told her that wasn’t the way a ticket lottery works, to which she called me a “ticket Nazi.” So to the box office workers of the Circle in the Square Theatre, this ticket Nazi is telling you that you should keep your lottery more organized in the future.

Aside from disorganization, The Miracle Worker ticket lottery is a good one. From what the attendant said, 15 people was the most he’d seen play the lotto, and the tickets are $16 a piece, up to two per person. The seats are in the back row of the theater, and that brings me to my first point of review for this show—the scenery.

The scenery for The Miracle Worker is impractical. Why scenic designer Derek McLane constructed his set with pieces that would hinder the views of the audience is a mystery. The Circle in the Square Theatre is in the round, which means the stage is in a pit at the theater’s center, and the audience surrounds the stage in stadium seating fashion, like in an arena. Therefore, there really is no front or back of the stage. Performers’ backs will be toward you at points, depending where you’re sitting, and that is tolerable. Yet in a production that is to be performed in the round, do not create set pieces with height that will block the audience’s view. For crucial scenes in the play, I had a doorframe in my vision. There were two doorframes, actually, another on the opposite end of the stage (so I imagine the people opposite me in the theater got the same blinded treatment). One marks the entrance to the Keller household, and the other the exit. Most of the play’s important moments take place at the dinner table. When the actors were seated at the table, the doorframe perfectly blocked Abigail Breslin’s (Helen Keller) face from my vision. That’s pretty disappointing, considering those were generally the most exciting scenes in an otherwise boring production.

Which brings me to my next point: this play, which is about a fascinating story, wasn’t executed interestingly. As I entered the theater for the show, there were hordes of children on class trips flooding into the lobby. I haven’t been to a show with that many kids in the longest time. I felt like I was on a class trip myself. And the play didn’t help to turn that notion around. This production, directed by Kate Whoriskey, felt extremely simple in its delivery and staging. It felt like a production for children. It didn’t poke at my interest or make me think. It was an overly literal rendition of this play by William Gibson.

Annie and Helen are the two characters that matter in this play, and the five supporting players just fade into the background without any real development. Well, half of that is true—they have no depth, but they do annoyingly keep popping back into the scenes. Captain Keller (Matthew Modine) and Kate Keller (Jennifer Morrison)—Helen’s parents—unconvincingly fret and fester over their little girl’s disabilities. James (Tobias Segal), Captain Keller’s son, whines that his father pays him no attention. Elizabeth Franz plays the crabby Aunt Ev who won’t shut up, and I don’t know why she’s been invited to the house in the first place.

Alison Pill as Annie Sullivan is an almost-there performance. There is a lot of praise to be given to her portrayal of the teacher with the impossible task of turning the tortured young Helen into a communicating being. Pill is marvelously firm and confident, which she needs to be, not only because of Helen, who will kick, stomp and thrash anyone who comes near, but also due to the household of relatives who are all too eager to give in to Helen’s tantrums. Pill has Annie’s teacher speak down pat, dictating in authoritative, lecture-ly ways. The only problem is Pill never comes down from that plane of dialect. When she is playing emotional scenes, not teaching Helen, her delivery seems monotone, choppy, and unrealistic. It is in those scenes that Annie must become an empathetic, emotional being, and Pill falls short of that.

The only home run in the play comes from Abigail Breslin. The almost-14-year-old Oscar nominee is a force as Helen. Naturally, she has no lines in the play, so all her work is physical. Physical is almost an understatement. With groans, screams, and tears, Breslin pounds her feet into the stage in protest at almost every gesture made by he family and teacher. She struggles violently with anyone attempting to calm or direct her. Helen is supposed to be agonizingly frustrating to her parents and Annie, and she becomes that way to the audience as well. While I did have to fight nodding off in my seat most of the play, it is during Breslin’s scenes that I found myself squirming along with her, hoping that she will grasp Annie’s lessons and harness her language.

Credit must be given to Breslin for the effectiveness of the play’s final scene, which stands as this production’s only effective scene. After one of their most violent tussles yet, Helen communicates to Annie for the first time. (This isn’t a spoiler, people; this is history.) It really is a crushing moment, watching a window open to this girl, which has never been open before. It’s a transformational moment for Breslin, and proof of this young actress’s massive talent. Lucky for The Miracle Worker, the play concludes after this scene. I am sure the majority of audiences leave praising this play, because the last thing they’ve witnessed is this one touching scene. It’s a wallop of an emotional payoff, but it’s the only thing this production has to offer.

Play: C / Lottery: B

Photo: Joan Marcus

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