"No one expects you to perform miracles," says the head of the Perkins Institute for the Blind sending his prized pupil Anne Sullivan south from Boston to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to a family where she is to become governess to an unruly blind and deaf girl named Helen Keller. The line gets a big laugh at the Circle in the Square Theater because, in this cherished, inspiring story of true events from 1880-well-known from the original 1959 play by William Gibson and a first-rate 1962 movie-of course work a miracle is exactly what she does.
This revival of Gibson's play features a wonderful supporting cast of seasoned actors: Elizabeth Franz plays Helen's aunt, Jennifer Morrison, Helen's mother, and Matthew Modine in his Broadway debut rises to skeptical, curmudgeonly fervor as Helen's father. In a quasi-developed subplot with his son James (Tobias Segal), one wishes for more for these fine actors to do.
The play, however, is really a pas de deux with the untamed, unruly wild child, Helen (a gifted Abigail Breslin, the bright light in the "Little Miss Sunshine" ensemble), making mischief and Anne (Alison Pill seen among other roles, in HBO's "In Treatment") trusting that language will set the girl free. The key moment, when Helen at the water pump vocalizes the syllables, wah-wah, brings the house to tears. This straight-ahead period drama takes us through that miraculous leap of discipline and discovery, and, for that moment, it is thrilling.
A note: the Film Society at Lincoln Center will screen "The Miracle Worker" in their "Fierce & Fabulous Anne Bancroft" Tribute on March 8, with special guest Patty Duke, the original Helen Keller to Bancroft's Anne Sullivan.