The battle of wills between Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan remains emotionally effective.
Circle in the Square’s last tenant, “The Norman Conquests,” was a superlative example of the enhanced scrutiny and heightened involvement that can be afforded by in-the-round presentation. “The Miracle Worker” is a less ideal fit; its staging in this first Broadway revival appears shaped more by necessity than by concept. Kate Whoriskey directs William Gibson’s midcentury chestnut with sensitivity, if not with any startling new insight. But the volatile battle of wills between the young Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, remains dramatically and emotionally effective, played with conviction by Abigail Breslin and Alison Pill.Originally a 1957 teleplay, the drama was drawn from Keller’s autobiography and Sullivan’s letters. Gibson reworked the material for Broadway in 1959 and for the screen three years later, in both cases directed by Arthur Penn and starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. That film version, which netted Oscars for both stars, remains a vivid benchmark for the raw intensity of the clashes between Keller and Sullivan. Those fight scenes retain their visceral charge in Whoriskey’s staging, even if the configuration at times partially obstructs the two protagonists’ faces during crucial interactions. In plays such as “Reasons to Be Pretty,” “Blackbird” and “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” Pill has demonstrated her skill at animating prickly contemporary women who can go from sullen vulnerability into bellicose attack mode in a flash. She’s no less convincing as 20-year-old Boston-Irish Sullivan, hired in 1887 by the Keller family in Alabama to serve as governess to Helen, left deaf and blind by an illness in her infancy. Despite her lack of teaching experience, Annie perceives Helen’s problem as an excess of pity and indulgence in place of communication. Her mother, Kate (Jennifer Morrison), showers the child with unconditional love, while her father (Matthew Modine), a stiff-backed former Confederate Army officer, believes she’s beyond help. As a result, tantrum-prone Helen is an almost feral creature. Her instinctive intelligence means she knows how to get what she wants, delivering a well-aimed kick or left hook when she doesn’t. Annie’s refusal to let sympathy condition her treatment of Helen is matched in Pill’s performance by her total absence of self-pity. She speaks of her awful past — her orphanage upbringing, the death of her young brother, overcoming her own blindness — with hard-edged matter-of-factness. And the Kellers’ skepticism about her youth and outspoken attitude bounces right off her. Only in letters to her mentor are the doubts beneath her headstrong toughness aired. Breslin is equally persuasive, her cherubic features sharply contrasted by evidence of the plotting going on inside Helen’s intellectually starved head. In a confident stage debut without the benefit of dialogue, the young thesp stays firmly in character whether violently acting out, howling with frustration, clamoring for comfort or fooling Annie with a false promise of obedience. Without shrinking in height, Breslin appears to ball up like a human fist, merely by planting her feet on either side of her and tightening her jaw. The close moments between teacher and student are the production’s most affecting, particularly their first encounter, in which the importance of touch is established, and the alphabet “game” that will become Helen’s key to learning is introduced. Their brawls, of course, are the dramatic high points, led by the famous breakfast smackdown during which scrambled eggs fly as Annie banishes everyone else from the room until Helen learns to eat with utensils from her own plate. Director Whoriskey (“Ruined”) fosters a strong connection to the three characters at the play’s center. The allegiances and conflicts among Helen, Annie and Kate (played with touching delicacy and warmth by Morrison) are conveyed with real heart. Secondary roles such as Helen’s frosty aunt (Elizabeth Franz) and half-brother (Tobias Segal) are somewhat thankless, while Modine is one-note blustery as Capt. Keller, whose softening in the final scene typifies the more perfunctory aspects of Gibson’s emotional climax. Major dramatic license is employed in having Helen grasp the concept of words representing not just tangibles, but also feelings, in a single breakthrough. But the play is no less moving for it. And the core idea – that Annie’s perseverance is fueled by her own emergence from darkness, driving her not just to tame Helen but to open her world to knowledge – resonates fully. Designer Derek McLane economically suggests a comfortable 19th century Southern home with a few pieces of furniture and doorframes. However, the distraction of having them lowered and raised from the flies takes us out of the drama, adding to the feeling that a cozy proscenium stage might have been more accommodating. Paul Tazewell’s costumes evoke the period with unfussy crispness, while Kenneth Posner’s lighting is especially lovely in intimate moments. Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s music, predominantly strings and piano, adds suitably tender or dissonant notes. At the first press night and reportedly through previews, the audience included an uncommonly high number of children for a non-musical Broadway show. Their quiet attentiveness during the perf indicates that the half-century-old play and Keller’s struggle still exert a hold on young imaginations.