Stage
  "The Miracle Worker"

 

The Playhouse Theater
137 W. 48th St., New York, NY

 

(The Playhouse Theater was demolished in 1969 after being in existence for 58 years)

 

 

"The Miracle Worker"

October 19, 1959 - July 1, 1961
719 performances

 

 

    

 

Starring:

Patty Duke:          Helen Keller
Anne Bancroft:          Annie Sullivan
Torin Thatcher:          Captain Keller
Patricia Neal:          Kate Keller
James Congdon:          James Keller

 

Suzanne Pleshette:          Annie Sullivan (1/6/61 - 7/1/61)

 

*Candace Culkin, sister of Bonnie Bedelia and aunt to Macaulay Culkin was Anna's understudy

Produced by Fred Coe
Directed by Arthur Penn
Written by William Gibson

 

 

 

"Little Patty Duke is wonderfully truthful and touching as Helen...[she] is altogether superb."
 --Brooks Atkinson, New York Times

"I still bruise when I see Patty Duke."
--Suzanne Pleshette

 

"The change that took place on the stage of The Playhouse last night is not likely to impede the successful career of 'The Miracle Worker' in any way.  Suzanne Pleshette, dark-haired, shiny-eyed and mercurial, is now playing Annie Sullivan, the leading role, that was brilliantly created by Anne Bancroft sixteen months ago.  Miss Pleshette has done the wisest thing under the circumstances, which is to model herself, almost gesture for gesture, inflection for inflection, on Miss Bancroft.  The highest compliment that can be paid Miss Pleshette is that the change is barely noticeable."
--Richard Watts, Jr., New York Post

 

       

"Anne Bancroft [was] replaced by Suzanne Pleshette.  [Her excellent portrayal] helped prolong the run until the play acquired a total of seven hundred performances."
--Abe Laufe, Anatomy of a Hit

*                    *                    *

 

 

THE MIRACLE WORKER: Still A Miracle at 40
By Richard Ridge


The Miracle Worker recently celebrated its 40th anniversary, and I talked with three of the original stars of the Broadway production, Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, and Patricia Neal. The Miracle Worker by William Gibson took a full five years to get to Broadway. In the mid 1950's Gibson had run across a book on Annie Sullivan's letters in the Stockbridge Library. The letters detailed some of her experiences in the late 1800's when -as a young woman fresh from her training at Perkins Institute in Boston-she went down south to try to lead a child named Helen Keller from great darkness into a little light. Gibson began work on the script.

Director Arthur Penn thought The Miracle Worker would make a great TV play and it appeared on Playhouse 90 in February 1957. It starred Teresa Wright as Annie and Patty McCormack as Helen. It was a huge success. Meanwhile, Penn, Producer Fred Coe, and Anne Bancroft were doing Gibson's play Two For The Seesaw, which became a big hit. So it was time to get moving on The Miracle Worker. The script was sent in Braille to Miss Keller, then 79. After re-writes, The Miracle Worker opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre on October 19, 1959, starring Anne Bancroft as teacher, Annie Sullivan, Patricia Neal as Helen's mother, Kate Keller, and Patty Duke as Helen Keller, the blind-deaf child. The show became one of the most electrifying theatrical events of the 1959-1960 season. It went on to win six Tony Awards, including best play.

"I'm very glad you're doing this piece," Duke told me, "because I thought this anniversary was just going to come and go and no one would remember it but me. To this day if I have trouble sleeping I will recite all the dialogue word for word.

"After auditioning over five hundred children Duke, at age 12, landed the role of Helen, which was to becoming the turning point of her young career. "I had three auditions for the show, I had been preparing for over a year. I realized this was going to be something very special and I really wanted this part. During the audition process Anne Bancroft and I got very physical she hit me and I hit her back. It was like being a boxer in the ring. Anne and I had to wear a lot of padding. About a year into the show I started to go through adolescence and one night Anne grabbed me by the chest and I went to the moon. So my chest had to be padded down with a version of a catcher's vest and then it had to be waterproofed. So we carried around a lot of extra weight."

"Anne Bancroft was just so wonderful and fair," Duke recalls tenderly. "Here I was a small kid and she was this big star. On every show that I'd worked on, I'd always find someone who was my channel of energy and love, and Anne filled that role on this show. We had great chemistry which came from inside. I also worshipped Patricia Neal, who played my mother, Kate."

"Has it really been 40 years?" Anne Bancroft asks. "You want me to remember back 40 years? Oh, let's see. The rehearsal process was really very tough. As a matter of fact, once during the fight scene I was very badly injured on my foot. I had a bone injury and we had to rehearse with my understudy. She was up on the stage and I was sitting in a chair because I had to keep my leg elevated. I was saying the lines and she was walking through the part and I had to write down all of the movements that Arthur was giving her. It was a very, very difficult period. And then I never could find a shoe that would fit over this enormous egg-shaped bruise. It was so uncomfortable for about the first six weeks, and I think it only cleared up like the day before we opened in New York. It was tough for me during the Philadelphia and Boston tryouts."

"I remember I had the hardest time with the phrase 'wah-wah,'" Duke remembers, "the otherworldly sound Helen makes that signifies the miracle. It was the single most embarrassing direction I've ever received. We'd been working for weeks on this critical sound and I just wasn't getting it. Arthur stopped everything, came on stage, and whispered into my ear, 'I want you to make this sound as if you're very constipated and you've been very constipated for a long time.' Well I thought I was going to die! Here it was 1959 and I was a twelve-year-old girl, but it worked, it really worked. More then any thing else Arthur Penn respected the process that actors go through, and respected that I was a kid who went through the same process as everyone else."

"Arthur Penn taught me everything," Bancroft adds. "He really was, I think, more help to me in my acting then any other person alive or dead. He's just an extraordinary teacher, and I was a good student just like Annie and Helen. That was Arthur and me. Everything he taught me I learned. I have always enjoyed Arthur's sense of humor."

"The role of Helen was very demanding physically and emotionally," Duke says, "but being so young I just did it. Sure, I got very tired but I didn't know what to compare it to. Matinee days would just drain me. I would eat after the matinee and then my mother would walk me around the block and then I would nap and so would Anne Bancroft. The heart of the play for Anne Bancroft, myself, and the audience is the big fight scene in the second act, when Annie Sullivan stands up to one of Helen's more impressive dinnertime tantrums. The battle lasts about ten minutes onstage and although it scare's the life out of you , it was intricately choreographed like a ballet. Movements might be slightly altered depending on where plates and spoons might fly, but every single moment in the scene was written by William Gibson.

"But Duke remembers, "There were nights when things did go wrong. During the second act fight scene, Helen gropes her way first to the front door and then to the rear one and finds them both locked. Every once in a while, though, one of the doors would be accidentally left open and I'd have no choice but to go through it. Anne wouldn't know I was gone, then she'd find she was playing the scene by herself and I'd be backstage laughing, trying not to pee in my pants. Once I got so hysterical I did wet my pants and had to go back on stage that way. Another time, the door that we were supposed to leave by at the end of the scene had been locked and was bolted and wouldn't open. Anne tried to open it with one of the keys she carried and was cursing under her breath while I made guttural sounds very loudly because I was afraid the audience would hear her. Finally she said, 'Screw it!' picked me up, walked me to the window, pushed me out, and dove right behind.

"Duke fondly remembers the opening night in Philadelphia. "We had about a half house and I had never heard that term before and Melvin Douglas was down the street doing a show and he got sick so it was cancelled, so they offered that audience the option of either getting there money back or seeing The Miracle Worker. By showtime the house was full and it wasn't stacked in our favor. Well, the audience loved it. The curtain call is something I will never forget. Arthur Penn had choreographed a beautiful curtain call. Helen and Teacher come out from opposite sides of the stage and grab hands. The audience stood up and yelled 'bravo, bravo'. We had 18 curtain calls. Kathleen Comegys who played Aunt Ev turned to me and said, "Child, oh my dear little one, do remember this night . It isn't this way all the time." It really wasn't until that opening night that I realized my importance to The Miracle Worker. Up until then I'd felt like a kid; but now I felt part of a team. The experience was staggering and astonishing."

"Opening night in New York, the audience was so responsive right off the bat that their reactions kicked us into another gear," Duke continues. "At one point, I threw a pitcher of water at Annie and I nailed Rosalind Russell, who was sitting in the front row. People around her tried to help her, but she was so enthralled she wouldn't let anyone interrupt what was going on onstage.

"On meeting Helen Keller, Duke says, "It was very special. I was taken to her house in Connecticut and brought into the living room. When I first saw Helen walking down the stairs, she looked almost regal. I thought I was Looking up at God. She walked down the stairs without using the banister. She just held out her pinky and guided it down the stairs on a thin piece of clear fish wire. She was close to Eighty years old by this time, she had a terrific smile and was very jolly. We communicated by ourselves. I spelled into her hand and then she put her hands on the vibrating parts of my neck, jaw and mouth and that's how she heard what I was saying .It was astounding."

"Oh, God, 40 years... I wanted to do The Miracle Worker very badly," said Patricia Neal. "I loved Anne Bancroft, I loved Patty Duke, I loved Arthur Penn, and my dear Fred Coe. My fondest memory of The Miracle Worker is that I got pregnant with my son on opening night. Yes, can you believe it, opening night! It was fun."

"I was only in it for about 4 months and then I had to get out," says Neal, "but I loved being in it. I was very sorry to leave because it was a very important play. Before we came into New York, we were a big hit on the road, baby. I sort of always knew it was going to be a hit because it was so beautifully written and beautifully directed and everything was just really well done. It was a great cast and Patty was just amazing. It was a great time. Arthur Penn is a lovely director. He really was a good, good director and William Gibson the writer, was just a love. I consider this a very important piece of literature. It's a beautifully written play that was beautifully done.

"Duke gets choked up when she talks about her favorite part of the play. "At the end, after Helen has said 'wa-wa' and her parents come out, Annie yells, "She knows!" I don't know where it came from inside Anne Bancroft. It was like a clarion of bells. To this day when I go to schools and watch the fourth graders watching the film when that part comes on, I'm gone, I just break down. But it's also for me, every time, a personal catharsis. I learn something more about me as a child, or what was going on in my life, or my growth, or not. But had I not had that outlet I'm not sure that I would have survived. There may have been a teenage suicide. Not only did I get to emotionally work it out but I got to physically work it out. It was a Band-Aid on a cancer which we later found out was my manic depression. But, it was a great Band-Aid."

"I think (The Miracle Worker) is a very important piece of work," says Bancroft. "The story of Helen Keller and the story of that teacher and the teacher's will and ambition and devotion and everything that she was able to give to that girl and that girl being able to use it and become such an important figure in American Literature. I think that story is a very powerful and important story, and had to be told ,and it was told in a beautiful way by Mr. Gibson. I thank God that he wrote it and I thank God that I got the part and I thank God that it got the recognition that it did and the appreciation because we certainly didn't think it would. I remember Fred Coe sitting around saying, "Who is going to go and see a play about a deaf, blind kid?" And of course he thought nobody would and everybody did. And that was very nice. It's very difficult for me to try and remember what the hell was going on in my head, my heart, and my mind at the time."

"In The Miracle Worker the people are really quite simple," Bancroft continues. "They all just have a single goal, and that is for that child to become civilized. Annie is more complicated then the rest of the people but its pretty straight forward in its goals. In The Miracle Worker I didn't come on stage for the first scene but once I came on stage I was never off, and I like that. As soon as we opened in New York I realized we were going to work for a while and have jobs. There was never an empty seat.

"Anne Bancroft won the Tony for her role as Annie Sullivan. When the play was filmed, in 1962, both she and Duke carried home Oscars for their work. In 1979, The Miracle Worker was redone for television, and this time, Duke played Annie, opposite Melissa Gilbert as Helen. Duke won an Emmy for her work. "Awards don't mean that much to me," Duke says. "I have to confess the Emmy I won for The Miracle Worker is my favorite acting honor. I always knew that someday I was going to play Annie Sullivan. I used to dream that all the time".Duke tearfully says of the 40th anniversary, " I feel some melancholy and enormous pride. It isn't ancient history to me; it's living history. I did the Rose Bowl parade this year with Keller Johnson, Helen's great grandniece. She and her family treat me as if I am Helen. I mean I'm part of the clan. October 19th I will have a vigil of my own, in a way. I'll bet I light a candle. It is responsible for every thing good in my life. Not a day goes by that I don't think of The Miracle Worker."