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This Dress Tells a Story

Date: Feb 19, 2010


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When you see the current Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker, look for the hats with feathers. Notice which dressing gowns have color and which vests have patterns. Those details tell a vivid part of the production’s story.

They work quietly, though, and they can be easy to miss.  When they’re well-designed, theatrical costumes, especially in a realistic play, seem like such a natural part of the world on stage that we often don’t think about them as having been designed. But they affect us anyway, subtly shaping our understanding not just of a particular character, but of an entire production.

For The Miracle Worker, designer Paul Tazewell’s costumes are part of a larger creative strategy to broaden the show’s focus. People often think of William Gibson’s 1959 play as “The Helen and Annie Revue,” since it charts the true story of how Annie Sullivan helped Helen Keller, a blind, deaf, and mute child living in 1880s Alabama, overcome her disabilities and communicate with the world. The famous film version, which stars Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, only strengthens the notion that Gibson essentially wrote a two-person show.

By highlighting Keller’s family---her mother, father, and aunt are all characters---the current production aims to expand our notion of what The Miracle Worker means. Tazewell says, “For us, it was trying to grasp the honesty of a relationship between a mother and a disabled child, and what it means when you can’t take care of that child on your own—when you have to pass that child off to someone else.”

Tazewell, who was the 1997 recipient of TDF's Irene Sharaff Young Master Award, wants his costumes to reflect that theme. “It’s really about having the clothing decisions be character-driven, and not just be pretty or historical for their own sake, and to have them be poetic in some way” he says.

For instance, when we first see Helen’s parents, Kate and Arthur Keller, their lives are fairly stable, and that’s reflected in their wardrobe. “There’s a blush to Kate’s dressing gown, the father has some stripes and patterns,” Tazewell says. “But then we pull the color out as they move forward in their lives.”

As Kate loses her grip on Helen, her costumes become more muted and constraining, but they retain a certain elegance, with bits of ribbon, silk, or embroidery expressing her refusal to stop fighting for her child. “You want to underscore the emotion,” Tazewell says. “Each time she has a scene, she’s picking herself up and trying again, and with that, we sense that she’s aware of fashion.”

He adds that once Annie starts helping Helen improve, Kate’s relief is reflected in clothes with brighter colors and more feminine cuts. “The light is coming back in her character,” he says.

Tazewell also wants his costumes to elucidate how the characters operate in a larger society. Kate may be dressed smartly, for instance, but since her family’s finances are in trouble, she doesn’t have, say, as many feathers on her hat as characters who are better off. “As you look across the group of characters, you’re trying to tell a visual story about the economic relationship between all of them,” he says.

Tazewell is aware that some people might overlook the stories he’s telling, but his design aesthetic keeps him from being too blunt. “At first, I thought, ‘Well, maybe it should all be very monochromatic and no patterns and this and this and this,’” he says. “But that’s not how I design. My entryway into design tends to be much more personal. I try to think, ‘Oh, this feels right for the person. If I were playing this character, this is what I would want to wear.’

He adds, “With this play, we especially want it to be personal [and] connected to the family.”


Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor