“How did Helen Keller burn her cheek? She answered the iron.”
“If Helen Keller fell in the woods, would she make a sound?”
“Helen Keller walks into a bar. Then a table. And then a chair.”
Most of us have heard—or told—a cruel Helen Keller joke. The rapid-fire succession of such one-liners is how Jack Cummings III’s Three Days to See, a new theater piece presented by Transport Group, begins. The diverse company of seven actors storms the stage, each grabbing a mic as if they were in the finals of Last Comic Standing.
“This is ridiculous,” blurted the patron sitting behind me, so offended by the onslaught of insensitivity. But that’s exactly where Cummings wants to begin: at the epicenter of what pop culture has made Helen Keller. The real woman, born in Alabama in 1880, was struck blind and deaf by the age of two. Most are familiar with The Miracle Worker and the arrival of her tutor, mentor, and friend, Annie Sullivan, who helped Keller reconnect to the world through finger spelling.
Keller’s journey from unruly child to world-renowned social activist is the subject of Cummings’ work, portrayed en masse by the company, each taking his or her turn to embody Keller’s words. The play’s dialogue—and that word is used loosely for the majority of it is narrative—is entirely drawn from her writings. Cummings can only occasionally craft dialogue based on referenced conversations, and that lack of engagement pigeonholes the company into an often-presentational performance style.
Those who transcend the fourth wall tend to capture the most heartfelt moments, including Barbara Walsh (Falsettos, Company, Hairspray), who embodies both Sullivan and Keller at different points and magically creates a sense of time and place with each nuanced movement. In contrast, Marc delaCruz (If/Then) has the joyful thread of following Keller’s journey through the reading of Gone With the Wind in braille. Punctuated throughout the evening, he steps center stage as if he’s cracked open the door for a secret slumber party. Others are less successful, either in their ability to connect with the audience or lack of physical dexterity.
Cummings asks a lot of the company. Choreographed in a pedestrian spirit similar to the work of Steven Hoggett (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Once, Peter and the Starcatcher), I almost wish that Hoggett had choreographed the piece to up the ante in terms of movement vocabulary. Even so, there is plenty to take in visually as well as with the other senses. Lighting designer R. Lee Kennedy makes the most of the stage at New York Theatre Workshop, transforming a blank slate into an endless number of locales.
The script is also driven into high gear by its accompanying soundtrack, which I assume was the collaboration of Cummings with sound designer Walter Trarbach. Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing Sing, is the auditory backdrop to an epic battle to teach Keller to eat with silverware. The musical choices sometimes overwhelm the action, with familiar overtures from the Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook as well as a notable portion from Elmer Bernstein’s Academy Award-nominated score from To Kill a Mockingbird.
In its final moments, Three Days to See addresses its namesake, playing out what Keller wrote as her three-part “miracle.” It is a beautiful sequence of dreams unlived, and a reminder that our senses are a gift not to be taken lightly.
Three Days to See
79 East Fourth Street, NYC
Through August 16
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on Twitter and Instgram at @roodeloo.