Formidable 13-year-old movie star Abigail Breslin — the little miss in Little Miss Sunshine — makes her theater debut as 6-year-old Helen Keller in the latest Broadway revival of William Gibson’s evergreen 1959 bio-drama The Miracle Worker. Outstanding 24-year-old actor Alison Pill (Milk, In Treatment) plays Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan. Cool cast! Great story, in which Annie, barely out of her teens herself, conveys the power of language to her deaf blind student! (Keller, born in late-19th-century Alabama, graduated from Radcliffe College and went on to become a world-famous author and political activist, with Sullivan by her side.) Can there be any moment more miraculous in human development than the realization that a word signifies a thing, the sharing of which allows one human being to connect with another?
And yet we’re left underwhelmed at the end of director Kate Whoriskey’s fussy, physically restless production. Furniture is hauled up in the air by cables and then lowered in the same place. Supporting characters in elaborate costumes traipse meaninglessly from one spot on the theater-in-the-round stage to another, speechifying loudly about family dynamics, post-Civil War politics, and the value of good manners. Under such stuffy conditions, even the popular and fresh Breslin can’t air out the must in this old-fashioned, declamatory play. And Pill can’t fully convey Sullivan’s fear of loving without losing those closest to her. (Flashbacks to Sullivan’s own Dickensian childhood with her sickly younger brother were downright confusing to the teenaged Miracle Worker newbie in the audience next to me.)
Oh, Miss Breslin is impressively un-actressy in the showcase role, flinging food and kicking her feet as the unsocialized, indulged wild child who terrorizes her overwhelmed family until the Yankee newcomer teaches her how to eat from her own plate and fold her napkin. And Pill, who always brings exceptional emotional clarity to her work, gives a muscular, unsentimental performance. But what should culminate in a stunning breakthrough, both to those familiar with the story and those new to the powerful tale, only registers as a dutiful conclusion — a Broadway lesson plan, not a miracle. B-
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)