Review by Tulis McCall
13 Feb 2010
Okay – you know the scene from the movie: the water pump, the teacher, who has just been pushed over the edge by the little brat who can neither see, speak or hear, drags her student from the dining table to the water pump to refill the pitcher that the kid has emptied – onto the teacher. The kid is kicking and screaming until the moment when she realizes that what was coming out of the pump and what was being spelled into the palm of her hand is connected. At that moment, the brat is transformed into Helen Keller. She hits the ground first and then covers the entire yard in record time, banging on everything she touches the ground, the trees, her own parents and finally her teacher, Annie Sullivan. With each little whack she demands that the word be spelled into her palm. Annie Sullivan can barely keep up and the scene builds until there is a crescendo of Sullivan shouting “She knows! She knows!”
I am giving myself goose bumps just thinking about this scene. So it is with regret that I report the same scene in this production did not. It didn’t even come close. So far from this extraordinary moment does this production sway that it had the excitement of a good old-fashioned evening of churning butter.
In reading the script I found that William Gibson gave exact stage directions that shape this play. They define moments that reveal Helen’s vital curiosity and frustration at being trapped inside her own self. These directions also paint a clear portrait of her parents, especially her mother, who is weary beyond reckoning because she cannot find the code that will connect to her daughter. These directions paint the scene at the pump in detail. And it is these directions that the director, Kate Whoriskey, tossed out the window. This wouldn’t be so bad if she had come up with something better, but she didn’t.
Circle in the Square is theater in the round, perfect for someone like Alan Ayckbourn who knows how to use it. Not so perfect for a director who doesn’t. Instead of using the round to its best advantage Whoriskey has staged the play with the focus to the east side of the circle. Here is placed THE PUMP, and all roads lead to it. Even the scenes that are staged on the other side of the circle face in the direction of the pump. I was on that other side, and by the second act I had pretty much had my fill of looking at people’s back sides. The furniture of the Keller home flies up and down on command, tethered by wires that are distracting and cumbersome for the actors who have to move around them or risk bumping into them,, which they do. And when the dining table flies out, it leaves behind the detritus from the several scenes in which Helen tosses her food about the room. Time passes on, but the eggs do not.
The Miracle Worker is a story about life and death. The stakes are that high. Annie Sullivan (Alison Pill) is a brittle, 20 year old woman of Irish descent. An orphan who was taken in at the Perkins School in Boston and taught how to read and write, she is literally being expelled from the school. While she is loved, she is also a challenge, and now that this teaching opportunity has come up she is being sent into the world with the intention that she will not return. There is nothing left for her in Boston. There is only the three-day train ride to Alabama and then, who knows. This is the end of the line. If Helen doesn’t figure out how to reach Helen, she may be destitute.
For Helen, Annie is the last chance to become a human being. If this experiment doesn’t work Helen will be sent to an asylum. For Helen’s mother, Kate, it is the same, if not a greater risk, because she knows this fact and Helen does not.
Life and death. Life and death. But these actors, especially Ms. Pill whose accent has a silky British lilt to it and whose manner is anything but abrupt, seem to have nothing much on their mind. As Kate Keller, Jennifer Morrison is elegant and refined and not a bit worn down by the child who will not stop poking and prodding everything within her reach. Abigail Breslin as Helen is given limited action and does the best she can with the little she does. As a matter of fact the only person who seemed fired up by the circumstances is Mathew Modine as Captain Keller. He is outraged as much by fate’s dirty tricks as he is by the complete chaos that has become his life because of Helen. He is embarrassed and humiliated at his own anger and powerlessness. Modine’s performance is the one reminder that this story is serious business.
So there you have it. Or rather, there you don’t have it. Which is a pity, because while I loved that scene at the pump in the movie, I love theatre more. I wanted to be in the room and feel the miracle of this story as it opened itself to us. I didn’t, and that is a damn shame.
"Sadly pedestrian production."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Seldom summons high stakes or deep feelings."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Feels too timid."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Kate Whoriskey directs the new production, ..., with a literal-minded reverence that only emphasizes its banal and dated qualities."
Elysa Gardner for USA Today
"The final scene, which ought to move the very stones to tears, only barely reaches our hearts."
John Simon for Bloomberg
"An elemental power that survives even director Kate Whoriskey's troubled staging."
Erik Haagensen for Back Stage
"The story is still powerful, gripping and heartening."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"A terrific family drama."
Roma Torre for NY1
"Remains as compelling as ever."
Michael Kuchwara for AP
"Features uneven performances and problematic staging, it nonetheless manages to touch the heart."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Remains dramatically and emotionally effective"
David Rooney for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...