Sunday, March 7, 2010

Book Review: "The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson

I know it seems perverse that my first book review in a while is for a play that was written over 50 years ago. However, while I had seen numerous versions of the play and movie of the life of Helen Keller (including that awful Disney remake starring the one-time Pepsi girl), I hadn't read the play until earlier this year. With the revival of the play, starring Abigail Breslin, now on Broadway, it seemed like a timely opportunity to review Gibson's text.

Before reading The Miracle Worker, I had a number of prejudices concerning the play. While I cannot deny that Helen Keller's story is powerful and inspirational (two buzzwords we are all sick of hearing after NBC's incessant Olympics coverage last month), I was never able to connect with the text. Some of the lines, such as "How does a bird learn to fly? We're born to use words, like wings, it has to come," struck me as overly didactic when watching the play or the movie, and some of the conflict seemed too forced (in addition to Helen's fight to overcome her problems, must we also have a patriarchal, distant father?).

Although these problems remain, I found them much easier to overlook when reading the play. In fact, I found reading the text to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience. In print, the play comes off as startlingly modern, since the action often cuts from Annie Sullivan's memories of growing up to the Keller household. However, what truly surprised me was the richness of Gibson's stage directions. Rather than just seeing actors trying to carry out the actions and emotions he dictates, reading the directions offers an evocative and sometimes moving experience. In fact, the stage directions read like prose and convey a world of depth that isn't always apparent in production.

Take, for instance, a scene near the end of the end of the play. Helen has just had a breakthrough, and her mother, Kate, is watching as Helen manages to communicate for the first time. Gibson's stage directions are as follows:
Kate moves to Helen, touches her hand questioningly, and Helen spells a word to her. Kate comprehends it, their first act of verbal communication, and she can hardly utter the word aloud, in wonder, gratitude, and deprivation; it is a moment in which she simultaneously finds and loses a child.
This elegant phrasing succinctly puts into words what Kate is experiencing, since this is the moment that she has gained the opportunity to communicate with Helen and relinquished her role as the most important person and guide in her daughter's life. The opportunity to get into Kate's head and heart allows us to experience this sense of wonder and loss first hand and gives us a greater sense of insight that is lost in a stage production.

The Miracle Worker is not a perfect (or, perhaps, even a great) play, but I urge you to take the opportunity read the text. Even if you have seen the play or film, reading the play might give you a deeper appreciation for the work and for what Gibson was trying to say.