Sunday, March 14, 2010

Theater Review: The Miracle Worker

This Revival Doesn’t Work any Miracles, Unfortunately
By Lauren Yarger
William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker about the efforts by teacher Annie Sullivan to reach young Helen Keller, trapped in a world of blindness and deafness, is a moving piece of drama. You can’t help sit in awe of Sullivan’s determination and rejoice when Helen finally realizes that the words her teacher has been spelling out in sign language on her hands actually mean something.

The original Broadway production starring Patti Duke as Helen and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan took a best play Tony. The stars reprised their roles in the screen version and in a popular TV remake years later, Duke took on the role of Sullivan opposite Melissa Gilbert, then starring in TV’s "Little House on the Prairie," as Helen. The play is beloved and is presented often at regional and amateur theaters around the country.

For its first revival on the Great White Way in 50 years, Alison Pill takes on Sullivan and film actress Abigail Breslin, best known for her roles in “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Raising Helen,” “Nim’s Island” and “Kit Kittredge: an American Girl,” makes her Broadway debut as Helen. Unfortunately, as directed by Kate Whoriskey, this production fails to work any miracles. In fact, Ivoryton Playhouse in Connecticut's recent production directed by Jacqueline Hubbard with Helen played by Jenilee Lea Simons Marques, who in real life is deaf, was far superior and might have have been a better choice for the revival.

Joining Pill and Breslin at Circle in the Square is Matthew Modine as Helen’s father, Captain Keller, the southern gentleman who is at first reluctant to bring an outspoken Yankee woman into his home as a governess/teacher for his wild and undisciplined daughter. He finally gives in to the pleas of his wife, Kate (Jennifer Morrison, whom fans of the TV series “House” will recognize), who hopes Sullivan will be able to teach Helen something and keep the family from having to send her to an asylum.

Adding more opposition is the Captain's estranged son, James (Tobias Segal), who resents everything, including the chaos Helen brings to the household, Kate, whom he thinks too easily replaced his own mother in the Captain’s affections, and Sullivan, who seems to know how to get the Captain’s ever elusive attention.

Haunted by memories of the death of her little brother, Jimmy (Lance Chantiles-Wertz), while they were orphan inmates in an asylum, Sullivan sees reaching Helen as a form of redemption and steadfastly works to find a way to communicate with her while convincing her parents to stop confusing pity with love and to let her enforce some discipline.

The real miracle in the play is not just that Sullivan accomplishes these goals, but also transforms the whole family in different ways. Whoriskey never gets the actors to go beneath the surface, however, so much of the production seems like a bunch of people just shouting lines at each other rather than a study of the relationships.

Elizabeth Franz, Yvette Gannier and Michael Cummings give nice turns in minor roles, but the leads fail to engage. Breslin appears very animated and aware of actors and actions around her, not detached and unaware as we would expect Helen to be. She doesn’t seem to need any help and Pill never emits enough of a feisty spirit to convince us that she does. Most difficult is Morrison’s appearing cold and unfeeling while reciting lines about how much she cares.

Meanwhile, Derek McLane (set design) no doubt had a challenge creating scenes on a three-step floor in the center of the theater in the round. His solution: lace trim forming an oval on the ceiling out of which fly pieces of furniture, door frames, windows and whatever else is needed to create a scene. It doesn’t work. The pieces remain attached to their cables for the duration of their stay and it’s awkward and distracting.

Skillful lighting by Kenneth Posner does help to create different scenic areas. It creates an other-worldly feel when the undergarment-only-clad Jimmy, pitifully thin and racked with convulsive coughs, visits Sullivan’s thoughts. (I prefer other productions, like the one at Ivoryton, where we just hear Jimmy).

Gibson’s play itself is worth a night at the theater, though, especially if you haven’t seen it before. There were a number of giggling young children in the audience and it’s about a “G” rated a play as you’ll see on a Broadway stage.

The Miracle Worker plays Circle in the Square Theatre at 235 W. 50th St., NYC. Discount tickets are available for friends of Masterwork Productions. Go to http://www.givenik.com/?code=Masterworks, click on the show, then indicate at left that Masterwork Productions is the religious charity you wish to support to see the special rates.

Christians might also like to know:
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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com and is a theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer. She previously served as Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle and the CT Press Club.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.

Copyright

All material is copyright 2008- 2017 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com

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Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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