Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Miracle Worker

We saw the revival of "The Miracle Worker" at Circle in the Square on Monday night. It is still in previews and still needs work, particularly in getting the young woman who plays Helen Keller to express the explosive pent-up energy that made Keller such an irresistibly fascinating character. Still, it is a fine play and the Annie Sullivan role is played beautifully by Allison Pill, an actress we have come to admire quite a lot since we saw her in a play by Neil LaBute called "Reasons to be Pretty."

The best parts of the play are in the stage directions that are expected to be enacted by the actors. Early on in the play, there is a long scene, in which no words are spoken but which takes up four pages of text, where Annie and Helen spar brutally for dominance over the breakfast table. Annie insists that Helen learn table manners, that she learn to fold a napkin and use a spoon. And Helen resists her at every turn. Even to read these directions is to get a sense of what a titanic conflict of wills was at work here, and how indefatigable Annie Sullivan was. In a very real sense, "The Miracle Worker" is about refusing to give up (Annie called it the "original sin"), no matter how crushing the challenge.

Here are a few, but by no means all, of those stage directions:

"Annie now removes the plate of food. Helen grabbing finds it missing, and commences to bang with her fists on the table. Annie collects a fistful of spoons and descends with them and the plate on Helen; she lets her smell the plate, at which Helen ceases banging, and Annie puts the plate down and a spoon in Helen's hand. Helen throws it on the floor. Annie puts another spoon in her hand. Helen throws it on the floor. Annie puts another spoon in her hand. Helen throws it on the floor. When Annie comes to her last spoon she sits next to Helen and gripping the spoon in Helen's hand compels her to take food in it up to her mouth. Helen sits with lips shut. Annie waits a stolid moment, then lowers Helen's hand. She tries again; Helen's lips remain shut. Annie waits, lowers Helen's hand. She tries again; this time Helen suddenly opens her mouth and accepts the food. Annie lowers the spoon with a sigh of relief, and Helen spews the mouthful out at her face. Annie sits a moment with eyes closed, then takes the pitcher and dashes its water into Helen's face, who gasps astonished. Annie with Helen's hand takes up another spoonful, and shoves it into her open mouth. Helen swallows involuntarily, and while she is catching her breath Annie forces her palm open, throws four swift letters into it, then another four, and bows toward her with devastating pleasantness."

"Annie says Good girl.

"Annie lifts Helen's hand to feel her face nodding; Helen grabs a fistful of her hair, and yanks. The pain brings Annie to her knees, and Helen pummels her; they roll under the table, and the lights commence to dim out on them."

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