Who knew Helen Keller was in vaudeville? Or so progressive in her politics?
Most know her only from The Miracle Worker, a young blind and deaf girl, awakened by her remarkable teacher Annie Sullivan. But Three Days To See, a new theater piece presented by Transport Group off-Broadway at Theater 79, introduces us to the adult Keller.
And she is extraordinary.
Seven actors speak her words -- and Keller opines on everything from politics to literature. She wrote 14 books and met every president from Coolidge to Kennedy. A Radcliffe graduate, she fought tirelessly for equal treatment for the disabled and counted Mark Twain and Charlie Chaplin as friends.
Her story is hugely dramatic, yet Three Days is sometimes devoid of drama. That may be because director Jack Cummings III has chosen a presentational style -- actors speaking to an audience -- in fragmented moments.
The play is a mosaic, rather than a narrative, skipping back and forth in time. Born a healthy child in Alabama in 1880, a high fever at 18 months robbed Keller of her sight and hearing. Left in isolation, she was nearly feral until Sullivan rescued her from darkness.
The most recognizable moment in Three Days is Sullivan (Barbara Walsh) trying to feed Keller as a child. It's a scene anyone familiar with "The Miracle Worker will recognize. This incarnation is choreographed to the Benny Goodman classic "Sing, Sing, Sing." The music is wonderful, but its usage here is distracting.
Similarly, other scenes feature actors Ito Aghayere, Patrick Boll, Marc De La Cruz Theresa McCarthy, Chinaza Uche, Barbara Walsh and Zoe Wilson jumping on chairs, running around the stage or grabbing flowerpots. The text is powerful -- it doesn't always need physical distraction.
At the same time, Keller's life is fascinating, and we're moved and enlightened by her story. There are genuinely poignant moments here; one of the most memorable is when her beloved teacher Annie Sullivan dies.
The title Three Days is taken from a piece Keller wrote explaining what she would do if given three days of sight and sound.
While the musical choices either overwhelm or complement the action, featuring overtures from To Kill a Mockingbird to Gone With the Wind, there is power in Keller's words. Three Days is a reminder of Keller's amazing life. For those who did not know Keller's full story, it's an awakening.
Photo: Carol Rosegg