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."
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