SAN DIEGO — Miracles are hard to come by, in both the real world and the theater. Or are they? Does it just take vision to see that life is a miracle we live with every day?
Frank Higgins' "Miracles," now in a West Coast premiere at the Old Globe Theatre's Cassius Carter Centre Stage, tackles the question with intermittent moments of magic. Inspired by a "60 Minutes" segment on autistic children, Higgins has crafted a story about a teacher who believes she has reached such a child and a father who derides her claims as a sham.
It's a provocative setup, but despite affecting performances by Kim Murphy as Eve, the autistic girl; Stephanie Dunnam as her teacher; and John Getz as her father, it never truly springs to life. The characters seem mouthpieces in a debate where, predictably, the truth swings like a pendulum between skepticism and faith, settling ultimately somewhere in between.
Eve, 17, lives in an institution (playfully designed in a kid-friendly way by Robin Sanford Roberts). She has never spoken and is rarely visited by her father (her mother is dead). Her teacher, Kate, summons her father, asserting that a miracle has occurred.
By "steadying" Eve's hand, Kate can "facilitate" the girl's typing. As a result, Kate joyfully claims, Eve has written poetry that she wishes to have published. All she needs is the father's consent to sign the contract.
The play touches on issues of celebrity--Eve can become an inspiration for parents with autistic children everywhere, yet is shoving her in front of the cameras--purportedly to inspire others-- more important than her privacy?
Is it a crime to make Eve something other than she is--if, indeed, that's what the teacher is doing--if that helps other people? Or is yet another crime involved as Kate overlooks Eve's true potential while she forces the girl into a potentially ill-fitting role?
Murphy does an especially fine job as Eve, with tics and repetitive gestures on the surface and a suggestion of torment within. The tempo in this talky play is clunky. The direction by Benny Sato Ambush soars in the one poetic element of the play--the fantasy scenes (nicely lit by Ashley York Kennedy) where Eve suddenly becomes what her father and Kate desperately want her to be.
The story harks back to the poetry of Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter," where a deaf-mute person becomes everything to everyone simply because he cannot speak and tell the truth about himself. It's the most affecting and universal element of Higgins' tale. Who among us is not sometimes guilty of half-creating what we wish to see?
* "Miracles," Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Old Globe Theatre, San Diego. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct. 11. $22-$39. (619) 239-2255. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.