Revisiting Miracle Worker 50 years later

DSC_6651

Alumna Leona Spurling Nelson speaks with SPU professor George A. Scranton at McKinley Hall. Andrew Haskell/THE FALCON

Fifty years ago, alumna Leona Spurling Nelson remembers cars driving through Tiffany Loop and parking outside McKinley Hall. Students, prohibited by college rules from dancing or going to the movies, crowded into the Seattle Pacific theatre on Friday nights and throughout the weekend.

“When we had a show, it was the main thing on campus,” Nelson said. “Word got around, and it could be packed out, the whole house and two balconies.”

The spunky and effervescent Nelson, who graduated from Seattle Pacific College in 1964 with a degree in speech and drama, returned to her alma mater this weekend.

She and her husband Wes Nelson, also an SPC graduate, attended the Saturday matinee performance of The Miracle Worker, SPU’s winter mainstage play.

The play, directed by theatre professor George A. Scranton, dramatizing the relationship between blind and mute Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, made its reappearance on SPU’s stage just over 50 years after its original installation. That production, starring Nelson as Annie Sullivan, took place in the autumn of the 1963-1964 season.

“I was so surprised by how much I remembered,” Nelson said after the show. “Annie’s lines just came back to me.”

She remembers the role as a challenging and rewarding one, balanced as it was within a tumultuous senior year of full-time student teaching and the first year of married life.

Wes Nelson felt himself called to ministry, and the couple was spearheading a Free Methodist church plant in Renton.

“I came back from Renton every evening for rehearsals,” Nelson said. “And I was teaching at Bellevue High under the National Teacher of the Year. When he went back east to be honored by President Kennedy, I taught all four of his classes.”

Little did they know the presentation was one of Kennedy’s last public appearances before his assassination. The Miracle Worker had opened the week before and was launching its second week of performances when the president was shot on Nov. 22, 1963.

“Everyone remembers where they were on campus,” Nelson said. “I walked into the Student Union and everyone was gathered around this little black and white TV. People were clambering on each other’s shoulders to see. I remember Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses and telling us the president had been killed. Everyone was crying; we didn’t know what to do.”

In the midst of a country and campus shocked into silence, Director James Leon Chapman, who would later found SPU’s Theatre Department, decided the show must go on. The following weekend, the cast of The Miracle Worker took to the stage again.

“We put everything we had into those performances. The death of the president had heightened every nuance, every line of loss and death. It was easy to get tears in your eyes.”

Nelson said the show had a lasting influence on her. After graduation she took a job as a high school English teacher, but the bulk of her career has been spent sharing her passion for speech and drama with students.

The very first play she directed was The Miracle Worker.

“I just couldn’t get it out of my blood,” she said.

The Nelsons, who now live in LaConnor, Wash., can’t seem to get SPU out of their blood, either.

Herself a transfer student, Nelson made the switch to SPC from Azusa Pacific after her freshman year, taking the bus up on her own before she’d even received her acceptance letter.

“I came up here on faith,” she said. “I knew it was right.”

The very next day the letter came in the mail, and her career at SPC began.

“At the time, the speech department was in the basement of Royal Brougham,” she said. “I went to see the chair, and he introduced me to a young man, Wes Nelson, who could show me around. The rest, as they say, is history.”

Over the years, the Nelsons have returned for various productions.

“I was so impressed with this production and with the professional quality of the work you do,” Nelson said to the actress who played Annie [junior Jean Sleight]. “I remember how hard it is. She did a great job.”

Despite 50 years of change, and no more parking on the front lawn, Nelson says she still recognizes the university she attended.

“Both of us wouldn’t have had the careers we did without this school,” she said.

As she strides around McKinley Hall, taking in renovations and memorabilia,                                                        it is clear that it is still home.