Abigail Breslin makes her Broadway debut in revival of 'The Miracle Worker'
At 13, Abigail Breslin has already appeared in an intriguing mix of movies. She received an Oscar nomination as the precocious beauty pageant hopeful in "Little Miss Sunshine" and has been seen in films as varied as "Signs," "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" and "Zombieland."
For her Broadway debut, she's gone in yet another direction, taking on the physically and emotionally challenging character of Helen Keller in the 50th-anniversary revival of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," which opened Wednesday at Circle in the Square.
Breslin plays the determined girl who could neither see, hear nor speak but who gained a new chance at life by fighting with and alongside her equally determined teacher, Annie Sullivan. Joining Breslin in the cast are Tony nominee Alison Pill as Sullivan, Matthew Modine, Jennifer Morrison ("House") and Tony winner Elizabeth Franz. The show is directed by Kate Whoriskey, who directed Lynn Nottage's 2009 Pulitzer winner, "Ruined."
When it first ran in New York, Gibson's drama received four Tonys including best play, best director (Arthur Penn) and best actress (Anne Bancroft as Sullivan) and it featured a young actress named Patty Duke. Both Duke and Bancroft earned Oscars for the 1962 movie version.
This time out, many critics praised Breslin's debut performance but weren't as keen on the dated script and the in-the-round staging.
Bloomberg's John Simon declared that "managing to be both demonic and touching, Abigail Breslin ('Little Miss Sunshine') gives a tremendous performance as Helen Keller in the first Broadway revival of 'The Miracle Worker.' And while Alison Pill looks and behaves convincingly as her stubborn teacher Annie, she lacks the pungent Irishness and variety that Anne Bancroft brought..."
"Regrettably," he adds, "Circle in the Square Theatre, where the audience surrounds the sunken stage on all sides, proves an inhospitable venue. We never get a clear sense of simultaneous goings-on in two houses and the space between. Worse, the actors are either too far away or too close, sometimes even blocked from view by one another."
Ben Brantley of the New York Times begins: "Language is exalted as the miracle maker of 'The Miracle Worker,' the potential means of salvation for a knowledge-starved deaf and blind girl named Helen Keller. 'One word, and I can put the world in your hand,' Helen’s teacher tells her with fervor. Odd, then, that the sadly pedestrian new production of William Gibson’s 1959 biographical drama is by far most effective when it is wordless."
He notes that Breslin "has a distinct advantage over her more than competent co-star, Alison Pill, who plays Helen’s intrepid teacher, Annie Sullivan: Breslin has no lines to speak. When this Helen groans, her flailing arms reaching for something she knows she wants but can’t quite identify, you feel the pure, painful thwartedness of a trapped intelligence searching for release. A matching, agonized frustration contorts the features of Pill’s Annie as she literally wrestles her pupil into submission. But Pill must also participate in Gibson’s dialogue, which 60 years on, sounds less than golden."
Elysa Gardner of USA Today says that "Kate Whoriskey directs the new production, which opened Wednesday, with a literal-minded reverence that only emphasizes its banal and dated qualities.
"But like the original, this 'Miracle Worker' benefits greatly from the involvement of two dynamic young actresses...."
David Rooney in Variety notes that "Annie's refusal to let sympathy condition her treatment of Helen is matched in Pill's performance by her total absence of self-pity. She speaks of her awful past--her orphanage upbringing, the death of her young brother, overcoming her own blindness--with hard-edged matter-of-factness...."
And he calls Breslin "persuasive, her cherubic features sharply contrasted by evidence of the plotting going on inside Helen's intellectually starved head. In a confident stage debut without the benefit of dialogue, the young thesp stays firmly in character whether violently acting out, howling with frustration, clamoring for comfort or fooling Annie with a false promise of obedience. Without shrinking in height, Breslin appears to ball up like a human fist, merely by planting her feet on either side of her and tightening her jaw."
Photo: Alison Pill and Abigail Breslin as Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker." Credit: Associated Press