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Fern Siegel

Fern Siegel

Posted: March 4, 2010 12:34 AM

Stage Door: The Miracle Worker, Conviction

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It's a famous pair: Annie Sullivan was a young, inexperienced teacher from Boston. Helen Keller was a deaf and blind girl. In 1887, the Kellers, an affluent Southern family, hired Sullivan to help their young daughter. The Kellers loved Helen, but despaired of their wild child -- until Sullivan, with super-human tenacity, reached her. That climactic moment underscores the sustaining power of The Miracle Worker, now at Circle in the Square.

Starring Alison Pill as Annie Sullivan and Abigail Breslin as Helen Keller, the William Gibson play is a tribute to Sullivan, who endured a harrowing childhood, temporary blindness and loss of her beloved brother Jimmy. As a student at the Perkins School for the Blind, the tough girl got an education. But on that memorable day in Alabama, when she rescues Keller from oblivion, she gets something more: a vocation. Both would forever change how society views the disabled.

It was Mark Twain who called Sullivan a "miracle worker," and their uplifting journey is fertile ground for drama.

The current revival is a physical ordeal for its excellent leads, especially Pill, whose no-nonsense approach to Helen reveals both her determination and vulnerability. She centers this production through force of will. Thirteen-year-old Breslin, best known as an aspiring beauty-pageant contestant in Little Miss Sunshine, tackles a grueling assignment -- communicating via slaps, punches and grunts -- expertly.

Together, along with a beautifully calibrated cast -- former House star Jennifer Morrison as Mrs. Keller, Matthew Modine as Captain Keller, Elizabeth Franz as Aunt Ev and Tobias Segal as James, Helen's half-brother -- The Miracle Worker, an inspiring production, introduces a new generation to a remarkable story.

The major drawback is the venue. Director Kate Whoriskey has the unenviable task of staging the play's actions to accommodate the space, rather than the story. Meaning, at hugely dramatic points, audiences watch the backs of key characters, rather than their faces. The show, which is an amazing physical and emotional journey, would be better served in a traditional theater. Still, no one who sees The Miracle Worker is likely to forget it.

The power of individual suffering is also addressed in Conviction at 59E59, but with a far more tragic result. The subject is rarely broached in theater: The Spanish Inquisition. Conviction is based on the true story of Andres Gonzalez, a Spanish priest (Ami Dayan), and his love affair with a Jewish woman (a sympathetic Catharine Pilafas).

The moving play, which opens in 1960s Franco-run Madrid, pits an Israeli scholar (Ami Dayan), accused of stealing an Inquisition file, against the archives director (Kevin Hart). The action shifts back and forth between the Sixties and 15th-century Spain. The production is economical, with an evocative set design by Jeremy Cole, who also directs.

It helps to have some knowledge of the period, and the playbill wisely supplies it. The Inquisition was a notorious arm of the Catholic Church that persecuted thousands of Jews, who had enjoyed safety and prosperity in Spain. By 1411, Jews could only work and live in designated areas. In time, Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, unleashed his fury and convicted 100,000 as heretics. Jews were given a choice: conversion or death.

Those who remained Jewish in secret were called "Marranos" -- risking their lives to sustain their faith. By 1492, the crown ordered the Edict of Expulsion -- requiring all unconverted Jews to leave. That's the searing backdrop to Conviction, which posits acts of personal heroism, in pursuit of love and religious freedom.

The premise is compelling, and it gives the male actors a chance to play dual roles. But there are curious directorial choices, particularly when illustrating sexual passion, and the narrative, given its dramatic potential, is occasionally uneven. Yet Conviction, an intimate play, merits attention.