The story of Helen Keller is the stuff of elementary school primers — the deaf, blind, mute girl who, through the help of an innovative and persistent teacher, learns to speak. But as The Miracle Worker opens this Thursday at E.E. Bach Theatre in McKinley Hall, Keller’s silence is given character and brought to life.
“It’s the opposite of everything they tell you in acting,” said senior Amy Helmuth, who plays the 6-year-old Keller. “It’s a challenge to remember all those things: I’m blind. I’m mute. I’m deaf.”
Yet to a familiar story, the cast of SPU’s winter mainstage production brings a perspective saturated with understanding and sparkling with vitality. Helmuth handles the guttural sounds and incoherent movements of Keller with sensitivity, and the plot is an engaging journey of scenes traversing time and space.
“It’s a show that goes all over the place,” director and theatre professor George A. Scranton said. “It has to move with the fluidity of cinema without the flexibility of cinema.”
The action opens as the Kellers discover their 6-month-old baby has been robbed of both her hearing and her sight by a raging fever. By age 6, she is an erratic, wheeling and tempestuous tyrant, upsetting everything from dresser drawers to dinner plates and placated only through sweets and cakes.
Into this melee steps Annie Sullivan, played by junior Jean Sleight. Sullivan is a young Irish woman recently graduated from the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Inexperienced, bashful and admittedly inadequate, Sullivan begins her relationship with Keller by giving her a doll and spelling its name in sign language on her hand, only to be locked in the upstairs bedroom by a devious and rebellious Keller who throws the key in the well.
From the beginning, it seems Sullivan’s fiercest battles are not with Keller but with her family — “What good will your pity do her?” she asks. “Obedience is the gateway through which knowledge enters the mind of the child.” Yet Sullivan’s attempts at teaching Keller obedience are seemingly futile. In addition to her youth and inexperience, Sullivan fights an almost constant battle against Captain Keller’s prejudice toward Northerners and his exasperation at the up-ending of his household. Freshman James Lynch plays Captain Keller.
Because Sullivan herself was blind as a child and treated by numerous procedures to restore her sight, she wears dark glasses to protect her eyes from strong light, but this incites little more than pity, the worst handicap, from the Captain.
In perhaps one of the most vivacious and tension-riddled scenes of the show, Sullivan asserts her control over Keller’s progress. Banishing the family from the dining room, she and Keller engage in an over-six-minute-long battle of the wills. The intricately choreographed fight scene is one of the highlights of the show, replete with biting, slapping, kicking, thrown dishes and spit food — and Helen finally eating breakfast with a spoon.
“The heavy breathing during the fight, that’s real,” Sleight said. “That’s the most concentrated physical effort we’ve ever done in a show.”
But such clashes of will convince the young teacher that Keller can only be taught to obey if she is removed from her familiar environment — “She must depend on me for everything,” Sullivan says. “For the very air she breathes.” Sullivan readily admits she does not love Keller — her heart has refused to love since the death of her little brother, and she is plagued by nightmares of his voice.
Grudgingly, the family agrees to move Sullivan and Keller to the garden house and issue an ultimatum of two weeks to achieve a change. Against such odds, Sullivan’s success is nothing short of a miracle. She teaches Keller 18 nouns and three verbs, how to sit up straight and eat with a spoon, to stitch and to pet a dog.
But still there is a disconnect between the words Keller feels and what they mean. Sullivan mourns the inability to connect the words and meanings: “Obedience without understanding is a blindness, too,” she says.
It is not until after Keller and Sullivan move back into the house, after a raucous homecoming dinner in which Keller attempts to return to her old ways, that the miracles Sullivan wished for begin to take place. In the satisfying resolution to a tension-filled side plot between Captain Keller and his son Jimmy, Jimmy is the one who stands up to his father and advocates for Sullivan’s control of the child.
And in a cinematic finish, the attention swings once more to Keller. Running her hand under the well faucet while Sullivan spells water into her hand, Keller’s eyes change from their glazed-over vacancy to puzzlement and then delight. She begins to spell words back to Sullivan, to ask her for new words. In a frenzy of excitement, she learns the meaning of “mother,” of “father” and of “teacher.”
The play concludes on the abrupt upswing of Keller’s comprehension, but is also intended to signify Sullivan’s progression, as well. She signs to Keller, “I love you, forever and ever.”
For Scranton, the message is clear.
“People with disabilities are still made in the image of God,” he said. “They’re loved by God, and they should be by us.”
The Miracle Worker runs Jan. 30, 31, Feb. 1, 6, 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m., and Feb. 1 and 8 at 2 p.m. Student tickets $10 and general admission $12.