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'The Miracle Worker' tutors a new generation

If you wonder, as I did, who on 21st century cyber-Earth would still want to see "The Miracle Worker," take a stroll past Circle in the Square Theatre (next door to "Wicked" on tween alley) before curtain time.

Better yet, take a seat and watch growing children sniffle and tear up at theater in which, bless them, no screaming green witches fly.

William Gibson's drama about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan is not a major play. I suspect, given the tidiness of the revelations, it wasn't a structural groundbreaker when it won the Tony Award in 1960 either. Even without the iconic performances of Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft on stage and in the film, however, there appears to be a justification - and a heartening one - for this modest and straightforward first Broadway revival in 50 years.

And what a neat trick, in a very nice way, to bait the family-market lure with the excellent Abigail Breslin - little miss sunshine herself - as Helen, the feral deaf and blind girl who, in the late 1880s, breaks into the world through the tough-love tutoring of a damaged but determined 20-year-old teacher (the equally persuasive Alison Pill).

There are other people on the ever-difficult in-the-round stage in Kate Whoriskey's attractive and mannerly production, of course. These include such overqualified, underutilized place holders as Elizabeth Franz as the cranky aristocratic Southern aunt, Matthew Modine as Helen's overprotective and skeptical father and Jennifer Morrison (Dr. Cameron on "House") as Helen's deeply caring mother.

But the real love story - and it's a profound one - involves Annie and Helen and language. Breslin, who never speaks, communicates Helen's frustrated tantrums with a sweet desperation and go-for-broke physicality. Pill has a believable, stubborn lack of vanity as Annie spells words in Helen's eager hand.

Yes, the play does compress a lot of struggle into a few quick scenes. This Helen does find her way around new places with a bit too much sure-footedness. And I hear that the handsome 19th century set, which lowers furniture from cords as needed, obscures action from some (steeply priced) seats. On the other hand, with the audience around the stage, one can watch young people get caught up in a genuine reality show. That's worth a lot.

WHAT "The Miracle Worker"

WHERE Circle in the Square Theatre, 235 W. 50th St.

INFO $117; 212-239-6200; telecharge.com

BOTTOM LINE Not a miracle, but it works

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