“I like to see a person’s eyes when I talk to ’em,” bellows Capt. Keller (Matthew Modine) to the bespectacled Annie Sullivan (Alison Pill) in act one of William Gibson’s ultimate weepie The Miracle Worker. Well, Captain, I like to see a person’s eyes—or at least face—when I watch them on stage, just one of many misbegotten aspects of this 50th-anniversary staging, now done in the round (the configuration of Circle in the Square’s last tenant, The Norman Conquests has been left intact), which means you get to see a lot of emoting occipital bones. Director Kate Whoriskey (who marvelously staged last year’s awards juggernaut Ruined) utilizes the entirety of the playing area, but aggravatingly—sometimes at key moments—you don’t feel a kinship with the players because they feel so far removed from you. How Ironic that a play about a woman trying to teach expressive qualities to someone differently-abled shields the viewer from truly experiencing expression.
But a wan sense of duty seems to have replaced hard-earned emotion in this pruned-down version of Gibson’s play. In the first act, it seems like there’s a scene change roughly every 45 seconds, robbing the narrative of its cumulative power. And the blocking of events is often more confounding than illuminating (at this particular performance, actors had a curious habit of putting their hands and feet through objects that one guesses were made of glass or wood). In theory, some of Whoriskey’s directorial choices do work. The set pieces are lowered and raised by wires, thus perfectly in tune with Helen Keller’s (Abigail Breslin) affinity for dolls; the Keller household aptly acts as dollhouse fragments. And some of the lighting effects (by the gifted Kenneth Posner) remind you that the piece has been rethought in slightly darker terms, and not as a retread for fogies.
For what is considered a chestnut play, Miracle Worker has actually aged quite decently, revealing more of an edge than you might remember. It’s a pity, then, that the whole affair isn’t more delicately shaded, again a result of the truncated bits of business. This revival’s emphasis is more on the Keller clan than Annie and Helen, and this is the production’s first misstep, chiefly because they are not as interesting. These characters are more reactive to Annie’s efforts in teaching the wild child Helen to learn, and have always been a bit underimagined, though the supporting cast tries to make this material fresh. Modine, as the caring, crusty dad, doesn’t find too many grace notes here, nor does Tobias Segal as put-upon brother James, but Jennifer Morrison (of FOX’s House) is surprisingly assured and natural. And you know there’s a problem when Mrs. Keller seems more interesting than anybody else.
Pill, best known for her ferocious energy on stage in works like Mauritius and The Lieutenant of Inishmore, is appropriately cast (Sullivan was only 20 when she first met Helen) but disappointingly diffident as Annie Sullivan. Rushing through her lines as if she had a bus to catch (and often sounding like Cate Blanchett’s version of Kate Hepburn from The Aviator), it is not a particularly nuanced performance. She is best in the play’s quiet, contemplative moments, but overall there’s a curious lack of confidence coming from her. Breslin fares better, though it becomes apparent that Helen, despite being disabled, is not a role out of which you can make a mountain (though Patty Duke sure seemed to years back). Again, her performance is blunted by the haphazard staging (after all, movement is about all Helen Keller really had), but she makes the best of it.
It’s awfully hard not to feel like you’re missing something throughout this Miracle Worker. I, for one, lamented the loss of Annie and Helen furiously trying to sign “dog” and “cat” in the tensest of their lessons, as it simply, gracefully reminded you that Helen is, indeed, still a child. This version seems more geared to a fast-food culture, where its sticking points don’t stick for very long. Annie famously asks in the play whether two weeks is enough to create a miracle out of Helen, but sadly, two hours wasn’t enough to make one at Circle in the Square.
The Miracle Worker is now playing at Circle in the Square (235 West 50th St.) in New York City and has an open-ended run. Schedule: Tue-Thu at 7pm, Fri and Sat at 8pm, Wed and Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm. Running time: 2 hours, one intermission.