Marc de la Cruz, Zoe Wilson photos by Carol Rosegg
potentially fascinating retelling of the life of extraordinary Helen Keller.
Eighty-five years ago, Helen
Keller, in her full fame, wrote an essay she entitled “Three Days to See” in
which she imagined three exceptional days during which she would actually see
and fully experience her choice of the wonders of the world around her, a world
she could not see or hear, not even the sounds she had learned to make as her
valiant attempts at speech. By then, 1933, she was internationally famous,
famous for her conquered handicaps, famous for her accomplishments as an
author, famous for her unique perspective and philosophy regarding humanity and
the human condition. She was extraordinary. Her story is widely known through
films and the theater as well as the written word. Now, bold, inventive Jack
Cummings III has directed a staged presentation he calls a re-awakening of
Helen Keller in Helen Keller’s own words. He meets the challenge obliquely.
At opening, seven microphones on
stands range across the front of the cavernous stage bared to its walls, a
hazardous space for any weak voiced, insufficiently trained actor, a
circumstance not immediately apparent because each of the actors manically
bellows into the magnifying microphones loud, coarse, derogatory Helen Keller
jokes once commonly known, poking fun at her handicaps. This barrage goes on
in waves for the first five, interminable minutes. Helen Keller jokes? In
execrable taste? Absolutely not in her own words.
We are certainly paying attention
but – where are we going? This is, I hope, deliberately not funny. All of
these stand-up “comedians”, dressed by designer Dane Laffrey as ordinary,
today’s locals, are eerily listed in the program as playing Helen Keller
herself. What is director Jack Cummings up to?
Boll, Theresa McCarthy, Chinaza Uche, Barbara Walsh
Abruptly, all seven actors lower
their microphones from the stage. The light changes. (Lighting designer R. Lee
Kennedy works acutely throughout the whole of the staging.) (Would that the
musical staging were as acute.) One by one, our actors speak Helen’s words, not
as themselves, but as Helen, in her cultivated voice, a language elegantly,
poetically composed, for that is how she learned it through endless reading,
from Shakespeare to Margaret Mitchell, through endless teaching, endless effort
sustained ultimately by her own brilliance, a brilliance which might have
remained smothered had she remained the wild, unknowing animal she was when
she was finally given an inspired teacher, Annie Sullivan, at age seven.
Today, when her story, once known
by almost everyone, is almost forgotten, director/creator Cummings uses his
company to remind us almost forcibly that all of us are Helen Keller in some
way. He has chosen a company of men and women who are deliberately disparate
in size, shape, color, age, from very tall, middle aged Patrick Boll to very
short teen ager Zoe Wilson, from forcefully athletic Ito Aghayere to studiedly
graceful Marc de la Cruz, from gentle soul Theresa McCarthy to tightly wound
Barbara Walsh, to overwhelmed Chinaza Uche, all of them linked together by
being Helen. Sometimes as director Cummings brings each to the fore in a scene
as Helen, that actor puts on a pinafore telling us who he/she is, Helen
violent, Helen helpless, Helen flailing, Helen achingly learning, Helen being
reached behind the iron prison of her deafness, her blindness, Helen becoming
It’s a tough job. Tough as it is
on stage, we start to know, to feel, it was far, far tougher in real life. And
that is what keeps us here. Because we’ve come to realize that Helen Keller’s
words as presented to us with as much skill and passion as they possess by the
actors, are still Helen Keller’s words learned without ever having heard
another voice, inflected with feeling, caring, spirit. No, Helen’s words are
carefully, gracefully presented by her powerful, pure intellect, not our
sometimes faltering, halting, searching strings of breath.
center: Zoe Wilson; clockwise: Ito
Aghayere, Chinaza Uche, Theresa McCarthy, Patrick Boll, Marc de la Cruz;
rear: Barbara Walsh
Our actors have an impossible
task. And our director knows it. And fights it by pushing his company into
endless patterns of staging, always keeping them connected in their effort to
convey Helen. Cummings has bound himself to rely on Keller’s own words and thus
also binds his actors.
He might have compelled us to
help in this creation by presenting the three days of his title (and hers) at
the outset and won us into joining the journey into Helen’s imagination but by
the time he brings up those three days and their importance to Helen he has
taken us through an unconnected series of events in her life – some splendidly
formed scenes – but not linked into keeping us continually involved. The huge
space in which they work tends to absorb some of the actors’ speech, blurring
Keller’s words. The words need additional help, we need additional help to
foster this re-awakening, this appreciation of Helen Keller, for we have come
to realize she is really too important to us to be left in this way. We want
more. We want to learn about ourselves. We want to be riveted. Ironically,
Cummings has directed for our sight, for our hearing. Why not for empathy? For
passion? For love? There’s work to be done.
Three Days to See. Theatre
79, 79 East 4th Street. Tickets: $45-$65. 212-564-0333. 115 min.
Thru Aug 16.