Alison Pill and Abigail Breslin
in The Miracle Worker
(© Joan Marcus)
Alison Pill and Abigail Breslin
in The Miracle Worker
(© Joan Marcus)
Most audiences likely to see director Kate Whoriskey's mostly effective Broadway revival of William Gibson's 1959 drama The Miracle Worker, now at Circle in the Square, will know that its embattled protagonists -- 20-year-old, first-time teacher Annie Sullivan (Alison Pill) and pre-teen deaf, blind, and mute Helen Keller (Abigail Breslin) -- reach an historic win-win victory. So it's not much of a spoiler to declare that the final five minutes of this drama, in which Helen at last understands that the letters w-a-t-e-r Sullivan has been spelling on her palm stand for the substance coming out of the garden pump, remains not just exhilarating, but is indisputably one of the most effective sequences in 20th-century American drama.

While the work focuses primarily on the struggle that the unrelenting Sullivan undergoes to teach -- if not simply subdue -- the pampered, tantrum-prone, undisciplined Helen, Gibson also poignantly examines the effect that Helen has on her domineering father, Captain Keller (Matthew Modine), his distraught second-wife Kate (Jennifer Morrison), conflicted older son James (Tobias Segal), and regularly visiting and proprietary relative, Aunt Ev (Elizabeth Franz). Smartly, the struggle between the Captain and James is a clever echo of the Helen-Annie conflict, although it doesn't come to as exciting a resolution (or any resolution at all).

On a more literary plane -- clearly one that means as much to Gibson as it did to Annie -- The Miracle Worker is about the liberating power of language. Without a command of it, as Annie suggests more than once, the domesticated Helen is no more than a house pet. Standing up to the Captain, Annie declares, "She has to learn that everything has a name -- that words can be her eyes to everything in the world outside her and inside, too. What is she without words? With them she can think, have ideas, be reached."

Fortunately, the players in the true-life dysfunctional-family narrative rise to the occasion. Breslin's inarticulate Helen -- looking like a Sir John Tenniel illustration for Alice in Wonderland -- impressively meets all requirements for floundering stamina, while Pill's Annie is a petite tower of strength, despite some accent uncertainties. Modine's goateed Captain is resolute but not ultimately without gratitude for Annie's achievement. Morrison's Kate hits the right balance as the harried go-between serving her tradition-entrenched husband and Annie. Segal's frustrated James is sympathetic; Franz lends weight to the proceedings in a small role; and Daniel Oreskes does well as both an attending physician and as the once-temporarily-blind Annie's mentor.

The main drawback in Whoriskey's treatment has to do with the show's in-the-round staging. Specifically, her decision to favor a Derek McLane design that has various set pieces -- a dining-room table, a desk, beds, et cetera -- repeatedly lowered and raised on wires that then remain in place means that the audience watches much of the action with strings attached.

Nevertheless, The Miracle Worker emerges a still-welcome report on one of the world's most exciting steps forward in human communication.