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Three Days to See

Marc de la Cruz, Zoe Wilson     photos by Carol Rosegg

 by Eugene Paul

A 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?

Patrick 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 human.

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.