On March 3, 1887, the blind-deaf-and-mute Helen Keller met Annie Sullivan, the teacher who would take her out of the isolated ignorance and tactile tyranny in which she lived. That life-altering event — which led to the unlocking of one of the great minds of the 20th century — was marked 123 years later, to the day, with a Circle in the Square revival of the play that dramatizes this encounter: William Gibson's stirring, soul-swelling, Tony-winning drama, The Miracle Worker. The transforming power of human thought is so rarely celebrated in theatre that the few plays that do that are usually touched with greatness. Pygmalion/My Fair Lady and Inherit the Wind come readily to mind. The Miracle Worker is probably the most primal exponent of this, involving as it does a ferociously physical interplay between a teacher and her willfully unwilling pupil.
As Gibson depicts it, this takes the form of two fierce, full-out dinner-table donnybrooks in which the teacher finally badgers her stubborn student into submission and civility. "The room is a wreck," Annie announces at the end of Round One, "but her napkin is folded." A lot of unlearning lies ahead of her, given the years Helen ruled the Keller roost like a wild child, pampered by her permissive parents.
It was producer David Richenthal's bright idea to recast "Little Miss Sunshine" as "Little Miss Darkness," flailing her way into the light, pitting Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin against Tony nominee Alison Pill.
Reinforcing this "Friday Night Fights" concept, director Kate Whoriskey has staged the match — er, play — in the round like a boxing ring, so God save the front-row patrons from all the flying biscuits. One has already been struck by a flying biscuit, but it crumbled on impact (the biscuit, not the patron) so no lawsuit. This new "lay of the land" presented a particular challenge to Tony-winning designer Derek McLane, who specializes in bookshelves and tchotchkes (33 Variations, I Am My Own Wife, et al). He resolved it imaginatively with flying scenery: Desks and doorways and beds and tables descend from, and ascend into, a lace-doily wrap-around covering the lighting-rig above the stage. The only prop left standing throughout the show is the front-yard pump, which, when it has to, dispenses real, barrier-breaking wawa at the right crucial moment at the end.
The evening's honored guest, introduced by Richenthal before the play began, was 87-year-old director Arthur Penn, whose 1959 Miracle won a Tony for himself and for the play and who refereed the Oscar-winning tag-team match of Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke on stage and screen. Even before this, he did the same for Teresa Wright and The Bad Seed's Patty McCormack in a "Playhouse 90" presentation on TV.
"It's a very touching play," he admitted at intermission, visibly glassy-eyed from the memories the evening was evoking. No, he didn't detect any telltale signs of a classic-in-the-hatching at first reading. "I knew I could get some money for Bill — that's all I knew." As one of the major movers in the Golden Age of Television, he thought Gibson's teleplay could cut muster as a teleplay, "but the success of it surprised us. On television in those days — this was the beginning of 'Playhouse 90' — the audience response was unknown. When it aired — directly, no tape, tape didn't exist — the telephones at CBS lit up. That's when we knew we had something.
"The reaction of the audience was very big, but people in the business — not so. When we had the play ready to come to Broadway, the Shuberts wouldn't give us a theatre. We had a play about a deaf blind kid, and they just weren't interested. So we got the old Playhouse — an independent theatre on West 48th that no longer exists."
Penn cashed in his chips when the curtain fell, and he didn't fall in with the madding crowd trudging to the after-party site, Crimson, at Broadway and 21st. Once there, first-nighters were shoehorned into the club's cramped quarters.
Poised with cameras and tape recorders, the press was packed into an alcove near the entranceway to get first dibs on the arriving players — a small pocket of chaos.
[flipbook] Little Miss Breslin led the big parade of players making their Broadway debuts — among them , actors playing her parents (Matthew Modine and Jennifer Morrison) and stepbrother (Tobias Segal) — and, with uncommon confidence, untouched by fatigue, she showed them how to breeze through the press gauntlet with the greatest of ease and not seem like a 13-year-old at all.
"I'm so honored to play Helen because she's such an inspiring person," she trilled. It's a performance six years in the making, if you start counting from her first spark of interest. "The first thing I read about her was a kid's biography when I was seven, and, ever since then, I've wanted to play her," the actress said. "I just read her autobiography when we were in rehearsal. One of the things I thought was so great about her is that, even though she is so violent in the show, she was so like a little girl with little-girl thoughts, like teaching her doll the sign language she learned."
Connecting the sign language to meaning is where the physical stuff came in. "Yeah, we had tons of choreography, and we had weeks of training. At first, the big fight scene ran 10 or 15 minutes, but we changed it. I'd say now it's about five minutes."
But doesn't the rigors of all that tucker even a teenager? "Yeah," Breslin grudgingly allowed herself in a chipper, sing-songy fashion. "I'm a little tired, but I'm okay."
Her opponent and co-star (who has 11 years on her) didn't bother to put a happy face on the hard work. "It is exhausting. I'm exhausted right now," Pill admitted with a laugh that spoke the truth. "We had a fight choreographer as well as a movement coach named Lee Sher who helped us with a lot of it as well." Fighting is only half the challenge — but the first half: "It's the stamina — just to be physically capable of lasting for that long in a battle on stage. And the next is just finding the truth in the moments between Abby and me and making sure that there is intimacy between us. She is a wonderful kid, and we're having a great time."
But neither one of them are sustaining the relationship without bruises, she said.
Morrison, who plays Helen's doting and indulgent mother, comes to the role from film and from FOX TV's "House M.D." "I've always loved being on stage," she confessed. "I've really missed it, and I feel the last couple of months have been a chance for me to re-find those muscles and to really stretch and grow as an actor.
"This is a character that I don't necessarily personally agree with a lot, and that was partly why it was so appealing to me — to take on a character that is so different from myself that I have to do a lot of work to believe in what she believes in.
"Personally, I would sympathize with Annie Sullivan if I was just watching this show. I had to find a way to absolutely 100 percent understand where Kate Keller was coming from in every moment, so the audience understood why she was saying what she was saying and doing what she was doing. I had to believe it as much as she believed it. The challenge of that really helped me to grow as an actor and as a person." Modine plays her hard-nosed husband with a molasses-thick Alabama accent, the one he perfected last year as Atticus Finch in Hartford Stage's To Kill a Mockingbird. He paused a beat in doubt and, double-checking, yelled out to the nearby Michael Wilson: "Aren't we in Alabama in Mockingbird?" Shot back director Wilson: "Yeah. You can only do plays that are in Alabama."
"Michael and I were hoping to bring Mockingbird to Broadway this year, but we need a little massaging of Harper Lee to get her to allow us to do that," Modine said. "But what we may do — when I finish up The Miracle Worker — is go down and do it in Washington, DC. because there's something extraordinary about the opportunity of doing that play in DC with this administration at this time in our country's history. That'd probably be sometime this fall at a theatre down there.
"The Miracle Worker is an earlier period than Mockingbird. This is post-Civil War. Captain Keller would have been Atticus' father. People who know this play remember the Captain as a one-dimensional, angry father. What I love about it is having the opportunity to flesh him out because the opportunity is there to make him three-dimensional — a father who loves his children and who is, in many ways, as blind as his daughter. Over the course of the play, he is able to hear things that he wasn't able to at the start of the play. It's a wonderful role."
Modine is amazed to be just now getting around to his Broadway bow. "I've lived here for 30 years, and I've had opportunities to work on Broadway, but things like Robert Altman or Stanley Kubrick or Alan Pakula — those people would get in my way and offer me movies — but now, unfortunately, they're all gone. And here I am."
Segal hasn't gotten around to Broadway because he has been too busy getting around the world — on the first world tour of The Bridge Project organized by Sam Mendes. "That was really wonderful. I had never been out of the states before."
He has already noticed a discernible difference in Broadway audiences. "It does feel different in the sense that the audiences that are coming to see the show — the support that's there is a little different than what you get in a smaller place."
Stage veteran Elizabeth Franz has the smallish role of the elderly aunt, but she's the picture of period-piece perfection whenever she weighs into a scene in her bustled outfit. "You know how much that weighs?" she asked. "Fifteen pounds! And we don't have elevators. We have to go up and down the stairs in that, but I love it."
What was her attraction to the role? Director Whoriskey. "I worked with her two years ago in The Piano Teacher Off-Broadway. We got the Lortel and the Obie and all that — and we almost went into an open-ended run. We may do that yet.
"Kate begged me to come and work on this because she said, 'I need your eye. You've been around so long, and I just want to see what I'm not getting across in rehearsal.' I would say, 'Well, maybe we can go this way,' and she'd say, 'Can I use your words?' I said, 'Sure. You can use any word of mine.' It's been wonderful working with her."
Whoriskey is another Broadway newcomer (but the only one with a Pulitzer Prize play under her belt: Lynn Nottage's Ruined of last year). Now, with a Broadway debut checked off, she's bound for Paris to do an opera and then Seattle to become artistic director of the Intiman Theatre there. "But I'm not deserting Broadway," she hastened to add. "Hopefully, I'll stay a member of this community."
Her husband, Daniel Breaker, a Tony contender last year as Shrek's Donkey, has been keeping the home fires burning while the Mrs. is off directing.
"I'm up to being a father right now" is what's he's up to, Breaker said. "Our son just turned 18 months today. Kate was doing the show, and I was being a dad."
The evening's best overheard-in-passing line? "Only if you're Sicilian is that important" — from Brian Dennehy, who was there for one of his former stage wives, Elizabeth Franz (they won Tonys together for the 1999 Death of a Salesman). Dennehy's promised Broadway return — a transfer from Chicago's Goodman of O'Neill/Beckett's Hughie/Krapp's Last Tape — has derailed, he said.
Other first-nighters included Mario Cantone with his sister; Josh Lucas; "Sopranos" stars Dominic Chianese and Edie Falco; Fox-5's Rosanna Scotto; designer Isabel Toledo; Bill Sage; I Am My Own WifeTony winner Jefferson Mays with his wife; Equus/Amadeus author Sir Peter Shaffer; Kathleen Turner; Finian's Rainbow's Kate Baldwin, Christopher Fitzgerald and Jim Norton, Debra Monk (who, with an arsenal of showstoppers that Kander & Ebb specifically wrote for her, is personally sitting pretty for their Vineyard Theatre salute March 8); Robert Creighton; Sutton Foster, and, separately, her pug-nosed bro Hunter Foster (bracing for Broadway's Million Dollar Quartet — as the narrating but non-singing Sun Records mogul Sam Phillips); Sarah Paulson with Amanda Peet; Dee Hoty; and Blaine Trump with "Wonder Woman" herself; Lynda Carter.