Three Days to See

 

There is much to learn about a nearly-forgotten American icon in this ultimately moving theatre piece.

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By Joel Benjamin

 

It’s beyond puzzling figuring out why Jack Cummings III, the brilliant director of the Transport Group Theatre, chose to begin Three Days to See with the cast racing merrily about the stage regaling the audience with one disgusting Helen Keller “joke” after another, the kind of humor that made fun of her deafness, blindness and inability to speak properly. It cast a pall on the rest of the evening, dissipating only gradually as Helen Keller’s own words, recited by these same actors, revealed her courage, imagination and humanity in the face of these disabilities. By the time “Three Days to See,” her moving rumination on what she would do had she this short period to see the world as others do, was acted out, we were in thrall of this iconic woman. If Cumming were afraid that Keller’s memoirs would sound too sweet and we needed some sort of contrast, then he shouldn’t have chosen to dramatize these works.

Dane Laffrey’s designs stripped Theatre 79 to its brick walls. Seven heavy-duty folding tables, a couple of chairs and some potted plants—all constantly moved about—made up the rest of the set. Laffrey’s costumes were ordinary street wear. If they had any significance beyond being ordinary and, perhaps, age appropriate, it was difficult to infer. The seven actors ranged from very young to middle aged, with representation of several races. All were billed as playing Helen Keller, though, again, in Cummings’ vision it wasn’t clear why seven actors and not two, three or even one would have been equally expressive.

They went through Keller’s life, pretty much chronologically, dealing with everything from the concept of understanding the meaning of words and abstract ideas like love, to her love life and the financial ups and downs she suffered with Anne Sullivan her savior, her Teacher.

Each segment was accompanied by music, often odd.  Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” played under the re-creation of the famous dining room fight scene where Anne teaches Helen to eat off her own plate. The pounding beat turned the scene into a dance number, weakening its effect. The theme from “Gone With the Wind” is repeated several times. Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty is played as Helen describes being helped by Alexander Graham Bell. Her thoughts on Samuel Clemens are particularly colorful. When Anne and Helen decide to tour in Vaudeville to replenish their funds, the “Overture” from Gypsy blasts anachronistically. Satie’s “Gymnopedies” quietly enhances Helen’s sadness on the death of her supportive mother. Puccini, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern and even Prokofiev are used, sometimes working, sometimes not.

Helen’s liberal politics are touched on, as well as all the famous people she met. But, it is the long dramatization of “Three Days to See” that makes this show worth seeing. Although it’s clear that Helen couldn’t possibly know all the little details she relates as she takes an imaginary stroll through New York City (where she lived and died), it’s nevertheless heartbreaking and ineffably poignant.

It’s unfortunate that Helen Keller has faded from our cultural memory in the last few decades. William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, written and staged during Keller’s lifetime, probably signaled the pinnacle of her fame.   Gibson, it seems, got a good deal right in his condensation of the early days of Anne Sullivan’s teaching of Keller, at least according to Three Days to See.

Ito Aghayere, Patrick Boll, Marc delaCruz, Theresa McCarthy, Chinaza Uche, Barbara Walsh and Zoe Wilson (the baby of the group) were energetic and engaged.

Photos: Carol Rosegg

Three Days to See (through August 16, 2015)

The Transport Group Theatre Company

Theatre 79  79 East 4th Street, between the Bowery and 2nd Avenue New York, NY

For tickets call 212-564-0333 or visit www.transportgroup.org

Running time: 105 minutes with no intermission

 

There is much to learn about a nearly-forgotten American icon in this ultimately moving theatre piece.

 

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