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On stage: reliving historic turning points. William Gibson's `Miracle Worker'

The Miracle Worker Play by William Gibson. Directed by Vivian Matalon. Starring Karen Allen. Director Vivian Matalon has gone to the heart of the matter in the fine new revival of William Gibson's 1959 Tony Award-winning drama, ``The Miracle Worker.'' The play's powerful emotional appeal centers, of course, on the relationship between two notable real-life characters: Annie Sullivan (Karen Allen), the 20-year-old Perkins School graduate, and Helen Keller (Eevin Hartsough), the blind, deaf, mute seven-year-old Annie is engaged to tutor.

Mr. Gibson dramatized the intense confrontation with an appreciation of its theatrics plus an awareness of its broader implications. Trying to convince Helen's skeptical parents of the importance of words to Helen, Annie says: ``Language is to the mind as light is to the eye.'' And later on, when they are satisfied with a merely pacified child, ``Obedience without understanding is a blindness too.''

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The tartly outspoken young teacher thus seeks to explain the motives behind her struggle to emancipate Helen. But it is the Annie-Helen confrontations - at times as comic as they are strenuous - that move ``The Miracle Worker.'' Typical of the encounters that lead to the play's famous and still heart-stopping denouement is the second-act tussle (realistically staged by fight coordinator B.H. Barry) at the end of which Helen learns her first lesson in table manners.

Miss Allen and 10-year-old Miss Hartsough display the physical energies inseparable from a grasp of the emotional and psychological elements of ``The Miracle Worker.'' Miss Allen gives a rigorously dedicated but humorously aware performance of the tough-minded neophyte still haunted by memories of the dreadful institution to which she and her brother Jimmy were sent as children and where Jimmy died. Assigned mostly to screams and tantrums, young Miss Hartsough proves equally responsive to the quieter moments when Helen begins yielding to Annie's patient, determined tutoring. The often stormy path of their relationship becomes deeply involving for the spectator.

Mr. Matalon and the Roundabout Theatre Company have seized on the strengths, including the comedy, of Gibson's sometimes deviceful drama. Jack Ryland's Captain Keller is a stiff-necked Southern autocrat who dominates his household. Laurie Kennedy brings genuine warmth and sensitivity to the role of the ameliorating Mrs. Keller, and Victor Slezak sulks convincingly as Keller's son by his first wife.

Said to be the only major New York revival since the play's original production, ``The Miracle Worker'' is well served by, among others, John Niespolo, Elizabeth Owens, and Kim Hamilton - not to mention the irresistible Moose (an ``Annie'' veteran) as the Kellers' dog. Lighting and scenic designer Neil Peter Jampolis has created an adaptable setting. The 1880s costumes are by Sigrid Insull.

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