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Even a less-than-thrilling production can’t completely drain the power of “The Miracle Worker,” William Gibson’s modern-day classic about Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. Although this Broadway revival — the first, strangely enough, in the 50 years since the landmark original — features uneven performances and problematic staging, it nonetheless manages to touch the heart. Indeed, if anyone can remain unmoved during the famous climactic water-pump scene, they’re made of stern stuff, indeed.
The show is best positioned for Broadway success as an alternative for families who might want to expose their children to something a little more substantive and educational than “Mary Poppins” or “Wicked.”
Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) makes her theatrical debut here, co-starring opposite Alison Pill (a Tony nominee for “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”) in the roles made famous by Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, who both went on to win Oscars for the film version.
One major problem with this production is the fact that it has been staged in the round at the Circle in the Square. Although this venue has proved daunting before, it also can be marvelously utilized, as evidenced by last season’s brilliant revival of “The Norman Conquests.”
Unfortunately, director Kate Whoriskey seems at sea here. The action takes place in numerous locations, with pieces of furniture distractingly descending from the ceiling at various times. The scenes are set at different corners of the playing area, with the result that audience members often have to strain to see. In a misguided attempt to compensate for this, many of the performers have a tendency to shout their lines, resulting in an overly shrill atmosphere.
Although they won’t erase anyone’s memories of Duke and Bancroft, the two lead actresses do credible work. Breslin, a 13-year-old playing ages 6-7, well portrays Helen’s feral rebelliousness in the play’s early sections and is deeply touching as her character’s bond with her teacher grows. Pill is, well, a pill as Sullivan, often garnering significant (and welcome) laughs with her comic inflections. Her numerous physical encounters with Breslin are effectively staged, with both actresses seeming to risk physical injury. If she doesn’t quite convey the powerful inner strength that was the main element of Bancroft’s performance, she replaces it with something interesting that is all her own.
The supporting performances are less effective, with Matthew Modine too blustery as Helen’s Civil War veteran father; Jennifer Morrison (“House”) not making much of an impression as Helen’s devoted mother; and Tobias Segal overdoing the jokiness as Helen’s emotionally frustrated half brother. Elizabeth Franz fares better in the comparatively smaller role of Helen’s aunt.
Ultimately, the strength of the evening comes from the play, a still-potent example of a powerful true-life story related in heart-tugging fashion.
Venue: Circle in the Square, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Abigail Breslin, Alison Pill, Matthew Modine, Jennifer Morrison, Elizabeth Franz, Tobias Segal, Daniel Oreskes, Michael Cummings, Simone Joy Jones, Yvette Ganier, Lance Chantilies-Wertz
Playwright: William Gibson
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Scenic designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Paul Tazewell. Lighting designer: Kenneth Posner
Original music/sound design: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Presented by David Richenthal, Eric Falkenstein, Randall L. Wreghitt, Barbara & Buddy Freitag/Dan Frishwasser, Joe & Kathy Grano, Mallory Factor, Cheryl Lachowicz, Martha Falkenberg, Bruce J. Carusi & Susan Altamore Carusi, David & Sheila Lehrer and Lynn Shaw in association with Connie Bartlow Kristan and Jamie deRoy/Remmel T. Dickinson
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