The Miracle Worker, Gaga, and Ballet

March 1, 2010

Last night I saw a preview of William Gibson’s powerful play, The Miracle Worker, which opens tonight. Because Helen Keller was blind and deaf, her whole child self was about moving and touching. The young actress Abigail Breslin was great as Helen—not quite the animal that Patty Duke was 50 years ago in this role. But she was convincing in her own way, feeling every surface with her fingers, throwing her spoon or herself to the floor regularly. Alison Pill as Annie Sullivan (the Anne Bancroft role) was excellent too. Because she looks so young, you get more of a feeling of a woman barely out of childhood who is fiercely independent (rather than authoritative, as Bancroft was). There were so many points in this production when I was close to tears. (And probably would have been more if I could see more—from my seat in Aisle One of Circle in the Square I saw the backs of the players in many key scenes.)


But what I want to talk about is the physical coaching, which was by Lee Sher. Co-director of the dance company LeeSaar, she is an Israeli writer and actor who states iin the program notes that her work is based on Ohad Naharin’s gaga technique. My guess is that her coaching helped give Breslin and Pill their physical substance, the connections between feelings and actions. But where you could really see the effects of gaga was in the character Jimmy, seen only in flashbacks. Jimmy was Annie Sullivan’s younger brother, who died of some disease in the seedy orphanage where they grew up. Whenever his image came to her mind, there would be a puff of smoke, and we would see this skinny, tormented child standing there, writhing in pain. His right leg was turned in, the toes stuck under the sole of the left foot. His rib cage protruded and then rolled back on itself as he yelled Annie’s name piteously. These were wrenching scenes, and they served to give Annie a motivation: She could not save the brother she loved, but she was determined to save Helen.

As it happens, the child who plays Jimmy, Lance Chantiles-Wertz, is a dancer/actor who studies at the School of American Ballet and has performed in NYCB’s Nutcracker. The Miracle Worker is a far cry from a classical ballet, and it makes me eager to see what this boy will do next.