In "Monday After the Miracle," his sequel to "The Miracle Worker" which opened last night at the O'Neill, William Gibson has constructed a sober blue-Monday drama around that ironic-sounding title. A jarringly disjointed piece of craftsmanship, it has the doubtful distinction of suggesting, at least in the measured tones of a sweet-looking newcomer named Karen Allen, that the mature Helen Keller (20 years have passed since we last saw her) sounded like a Frenchwoman gallantly trying to master the English tongue.
But the play, in three acts and several scenes covering a decade or so in the Boston area early in the century, is really about Helen's dedicated teacher, the "miracle worker" Annie Sullivan - her courtship and unsuccessful marriage at 27 to a man 11 years her junior. Helen's dependence on Annie and the latter's husband, John Macy, a literary critic and staff writer for the Youth's Companion, is seen as the chief obstacle. But Annie's barrenness and ultimate hysterectomy are made to seem contributing factors, too, and when we leave the now near-blind Annie and thriving lecture-circuit queen Helen at the end, we see that their roles are undergoing a kind of reversal.
It is a bleak play by a skilled writer unable to get a secure hold on his unwieldy subject, pertinent aspects of which have undoubtedly been obscured by time. His attempts at jocularity, most of them made through Macy, a dedicated kidder, have the same unpersuasive air as the passionate love scenes between John and Annie. And, of course, the young Helen, tottering about and talking in that funny way, not only comes to seem a nuisance, but also, I'm afraid to say, like some comic toy figure.
In the shrewdly and confidently expressed "The Miracle Worker," the child Helen's first words, after the youthful Annie's relentless sessions with her deaf, blind and obstreperous charge, provided a thrilling climax. But Helen's concerns in the sequel, as we follow her from age 26 to somewhere in her 30s, are mostly a matter of career development as Macy edits articles about her, checks and tempting vaudeville offers start coming in, and Annie accompanies Helen on the road, and there's nothing very dramatic about any of this. Even the switching back and forth from lip-reading (through her hand) to signing (Helen's, of course) to hand-to-hand finger "talking" (all of it spoken out by one character or another) fails to stir our interest; indeed, it becomes monotonous.
Given this difficult material to shape, Jane Alexander makes the most she can of the role of poor Annie. But it is William Converse-Roberts, as Macy, who brings some much-needed vitality to the long evening. The actor tries very hard, often succeeding, to let air into this stifling household, and even some merriment, in a part calling for ardor, playfulness, sudden fits of anger, and a fireside scene during which he awakens Helen's sexual desires as the two roll on the floor in a fierce embrace. Only near the very end do we learn, in a few brief sentences delivered by Annie's kindly old doctor (Joseph Warren), that Macy has moved to New York, remarried, this time to a deaf mute, and is at last a father. Matt McKenzie plays a writer-friend of Macy's who becomes engaged to Helen but is unable to satisfy her sexually, a shortcoming good for a joke by Keller.
Shuttling about from the increasingly disconsolate Annie to the frustrated and booze-guzzling Macy to the emerging celebrity, Gibson gets lost and so do we.
John Lee Beatty has designed an interesting setting of bits of furniture, a stair section, and other props against a background of tall trees and a leafy backcloth creating a darkling mood. The period costumes are mostly muted, as is the lighting.
All in all, "Monday After the Miracle" is a downer.
Triangles are forever. That is their dramatic strength and eternal weakness. In his new play Monday After the Miracle, which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater last night, William Gibson gives us a dramatic triangle with a distinct difference.
Twenty years or so ago, in his most successful play, The Miracle Worker, Gibson told the remarkable story of the teacher Annie Sullivan and how she bullied, cajoled, and spirited a young deaf and blind girl, Helen Keller, into speech.
In the new play Gibson explores the aftermath - that Monday-morning feeling after any miracle, or the miracle and how to live with it. It is a play at once more conventional yet potentially more appealing than its predecessor.
Unlike The Miracle Worker this sequel is a play about people rather than events. It is a testament of human frailty, rather than a monument to the human spirit.
For me it doesn't quite work - yet in not quite working it still manages to provide an engrossing evening in the theater. It is perhaps one of those plays that continuously holds your interest, even while frustrating your expectations.
It is said that Queen Elizabeth was so taken with the character of John Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry IV that she demanded to see "the fat knight in love." In Monday After the Miracle, Gibson shows us not only his heroine, Annie Sullivan (Jane Alexander), in love, but also her pupil, Helen Keller (Karen Allen). And in love with the same man.
The play opens with this young man, John Macy (William Converse-Roberts) coming to the Sullivan Keller household to help with editing chores on Miss Keller's writings. He is a Harvard poet, a sometime teacher, a literary critic, a Marxist, and a man of inflammatory vigor.
He and Annie fall in love - and marry - although she is some years older than John, who is much more Helen's age. Annie and John have no children, and the marriage, after some years, founders. Helen also makes an abortive attempt to marry, but that comes to nothing.
The two women continued to live together until Annie's death in 1936 at the age of 69. Helen survived her until 1968, when she died at the age of 88. These are the facts.
Mr. Gibson, who only takes their story up to about the beginning of World War I, embroiders on those facts to delicately fancy purpose. He lets his imagination play on that household - most persuasively.
Talking of love, Gibson himself is in love - with Annie Sullivan. As a playwright he is besotted with both her historical image and his own imaginings of her. And no wonder. Annie was not only a miracle worker, she must herself have been something of a miracle.
A woman from a humble background, herself half-blinded in infancy, who stormed the bastions of impossibility and, at the age of 20, taught a blind deaf-mute to start to talk within a month, Annie was a creature of unique circumstance.
The pressures on her life, having a dependent pupil more famous than herself, and falling in love with a wild and glamorous younger man, must have been extraordinary. And say - as Gibson does - that Helen herself also fell in love with the firebrand John, what then?
For that matter how did John, his literary and political aspirations damply afire, feel about being the man in this singular household, the unknown amanuensis to perverse genius? This must be the stuff of drama.
It is. Particularly as Gibson draws his characters - not merely his beloved Annie - so well, in such convincing depth. Why then, does this remarkable manage a trois not shake us more, why does it not wring our emotional withers?
Simply, I think, because the situation is too remarkable, too bizarre, too remote, to engage our sympathies, too far removed for empathy. We can suffer more easily with Hecuba than with Annie. Annie we can only admire.
Gibson's real triumphs are in the small things, such as Helen's growing sense of herself as a woman, and her sexual awareness of a man around the house. For that matter the play's pervasive atmosphere of politely imploding sex is impressive, and in part due to the actors and the strong staging by Arthur Penn, Gibson's co-worker on the first Miracle.
Jane Alexander's commonsensical, charming, yet slightly disillusioned Annie is the best thing she has ever done. She swoops to the artistry beneath her artifice. She is vibrant and doomed, like a drab but heroic moth, too close to the flames of her genius.
Karen Allen and William Converse-Roberts are almost as fine as Helen and John. Miss Allen's robot-mechanical voice and black-eyed pathos is unblinkingly unsentimental - a formidable achievement in itself.
And Converse-Roberts, as a man of action stalled by love and lost in his own inertia, is totally convincing. In less roles, Matt McKenzie, as Helen's boring suitor, and Joseph Warren as a wise old doctor, make stereotypes into something more.
The physical production, especially F. Mitchell Dana's lighting, could scarcely be bettered. Indeed all Monday After the Miracle needs is the miracle of involvement. Many may find it. I didn't.
In ''Monday After the Miracle,'' which opened at the Eugene O'Neill Theater last night, the playwright William Gibson and the director Arthur Penn return to the scene of an early triumph: they pick up the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan 17 years after the thrilling climax of ''The Miracle Worker.''
Yet no one can accuse Mr. Gibson or Mr. Penn of exploiting their Broadway hit of a generation ago. In almost every way, ''Monday After the Miracle'' is more ambitious than its predecessor - darker in mood, more mature in its themes, more troubling in its conclusions about human nature.
How one wishes that the work itself rose to the high level of its creators' aspirations. While ''Monday After the Miracle'' at times generates powerful emotions, it lacks the transcendent writing and taut dramatic structure that might unite its parts into a gripping whole. There's a plodding quality to the play that keeps us at a distance even as we admire the concerted, intelligent seriousness of purpose and the finer moments in its three lead performances.
The central situation - a mixture of sketchy fact and Mr. Gibson's speculations - could not be more inherently fascinating. As the play opens in the early 1900's, Helen (Karen Allen) is in her 20's and world famous for having broken through the darkness of being blind and deaf: she speaks fluently, writes magazine articles and is nearing graduation from Radcliffe. She shares her cozy Cambridge home with Annie (Jane Alexander), who is now in her late 30's and who functions not only as Helen's tireless instructor, but also as her foster parent and full-time protector from the prying public.
Into this still pond of a household arrives, of all things, a man - John Macy (William Converse-Roberts). A young Harvard instructor and aspiring critic, Macy first serves as Helen's literary collaborator, then stays on to marry Annie, who is 11 years his senior. It proves an earth-shattering intrusion. John inadvertently awakens Helen's sexual yearnings in addition to Annie's - even as he sparks his wife's suppressed resentment at the prized student into whom she's poured her passion, creativity and best years.
What develops is a most unusual love triangle. Mr. Gibson raises an exponentially expanding series of questions about the many difficult choices his characters must make. Can Annie remain in bondage to her student forever, even at the price of shortchanging her own intellectual ambitions and desire for children? Can John also subordinate his emotional needs and career to Helen, who always comes first in his wife's priorities? How does Helen escape her last ''jail'' - her body - and how does she cope with a rival for her teacher's devotion? The answers don't come easily, for all three characters do love one another.
Nonetheless, Mr. Gibson diligently provides the answers - too diligently perhaps. After laying out his issues in an often dry and expository Act I, he brings them to a sudden galvanizing head in his strong Act II - only to stir the ashes a bit redundantly in Act III. Though substantially and sometimes profitably reworked since its premiere at the Spoleto U.S.A. festival in Charleston, S.C., last spring, ''Monday After the Miracle'' still lacks depth. The characters announce their conflicting feelings point-blank and later announce the resolution of those feelings, too. The breathing room in between - the psychological flesh - is meager.
Rather than take us further inside his characters, Mr. Gibson too often propels the play with melodramatic incidents: the outbreak of a fire or the knifelike wielding of a letter opener or the smashing of a liquor bottle. Some of the events are genuine bombshells - Annie's hysterectomy or Helen's near-elopement with a ninnyish suitor (Matt McKenzie) - but we still long for richer, sustained scenes that might unravel the threesome's feelings through indirect means. By revealing his characters' changes almost exclusively through narrative twists and outright confessionals, the author ends up with an episodic play that seems static despite its abundant activity.
This is not true of Act II, in which Helen and John exchange tender sentiments and furtive kisses by a flickering fireplace. For once, the characters don't speak exactly what's on their mind - with the result that they seem like real people, rather than opaque mouthpieces for the author. When Annie then returns home to break up John's and Helen's idyll, Mr. Gibson unleashes an explosion of recriminations that gives relentless, angry force to conflicts that he otherwise tends to present with lawyerly logic.
Mr. Penn does his customary muscular best with that pivotal scene, and his staging provides other poignant touches, too - especially when we watch the isolated Helen at sea in her private shadows. The director is less successful with Mr. Gibson's leaden digressions into domestic comedy, and he's also handicapped by John Lee Beatty's set. Though Mr. Beatty's dark wood-and-foliage construct provides flexible playing areas, it makes an unnecessary fetish of gloom.
The acting is good, but imperfect. Most impressive is Miss Allen, who is too glamorous-looking for her role (even with plain makeup), but who captures Helen's disembodied voice (''my most dismal failure,'' she explains), her unseeing eyes and her courageous ability to overcome both physical handicaps and loneliness. Mr. Converse-Roberts retains the charm, intellectual arrogance and libidinal ardor he had in Charleston, but now becomes cloying when he must cope with Macy's infatutations with Marxism, Stephen Crane and alcohol - all of which are sketched in too broadly by the playwright.
The most important role belongs to Miss Alexander, whose teacher suffers the greatest internal turmoil. The actress is utterly convincing at portraying the tart fortitude and cynicism of this Irishwoman with ''a mouth full of boils'': we believe that she suspects everyone of wanting ''to beat a path'' through her to Helen and that she has ''arson in her heart'' for the world she distrusts. But is there love for John or Helen in her heart as well? Miss Alexander only rarely demonstrates overwhelming affection for either of them. As with Mr. Gibson's play, one respects the integrity of her work but finds that the binding element of deep feeling has somehow been left incompletely expressed.