Her parents don’t know what to do — they’ve tried just about everything in this age of quacks and healers — so they invite a teacher, Annie Sullivan, to work with Helen.
In just a few weeks, Annie works a miracle, and Helen goes on to become one of the most well-respected public figures of the 19th century.
Haywood Arts Regional Theatre portrays this true story in “The Miracle Worker,” the opening main stage production of the 2006 season. The show will be performed for two weekends at 7:30 p.m. on April 28 and 29, May 4, 5, and 6, and then at 3 p.m. April 30 and May 7. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $6 for students. Student tickets are $5 for Sunday matinees.
The play, written by William Gibson, won the 1960 Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Author and then became famous as the Academy Award-winning 1962 movie. Both the play and the film starred Anne Bancroft as Annie Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen Keller. (Bancroft and Duke picked up Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively.) The story continues to be remade in TV movies and dramatic variations.
For any parent who struggles to communicate with a child labeled as “different” — perhaps it’s attention deficit disorder or autism — even well-meaning, honest attempts may prove to be frustrating failures. Helen’s father, Captain Keller, and mother Kate want what’s best for their daughter but can’t seem to give Helen what she needs. Helen’s family seems to pity their daughter, and that pity is often mistaken for love, a pity that merely reinforces helplessness instead of empowering a person.
As a fitting symbolism of this struggle, the set design for the play features hanging doors and windows — they all appear closed, unmovable. In comes Annie Sullivan, the strict Yankee teacher seemingly out of place in the Southern home of a former Civil War officer. At first she butts heads with the Keller family — How would a complete stranger possibly know what’s best for Helen above her own family?
“She tries her best to be polite, but her temper wins out most of the time,” says Trinity Smith, who plays Annie Sullivan in the HART production.
Sullivan pleads with the Kellers to give Helen the tough love she needs to instill discipline. Only then can Helen learn to communicate.
“I treat her like a seeing child,” Sullivan says in the play, “because I expect her to see.”
Eventually, as the famous, real-life story goes, Helen signs the word for “water” into Sullivan’s hand. With that first word, Helen opens the door to communicate with the rest of the world.
“In two weeks, she does work miracles,” says Tom Dewees, who plays Captain Keller.
“You took a wild animal, and brought us a child,” Captain Keller says in the play.
MacKensie Kvalvik, who plays Helen, brings a precocious, powerful and difficult role to the stage. Without delivering any lines — her character is mute — Kvalvik has had to pretend to be blind, which can be a difficult task to pull off for someone who has been in the habit of seeing. Susanne Tinsley, who directs the show and has played a blind person before in another show, has been working with Kvalvik so she does not focus on objects as if she could see them, to imagine instead a world of darkness. It gives a person a new appreciation for light and darkness — and for how amazing Helen Keller’s transformation truly is.
“Her whole world of knowledge and light and sound is on the tip of her tongue, and she’s consumed with trying to communicate,” Tinsley said.
Helen tries so hard to mimic others around her, and it doesn’t work until she learns from Sullivan.
“I think she would’ve gone crazy,” Tinsley said, “had Annie not come.”
Beyond the main plot of Helen’s struggle, the play also explores the difficulties people have — blind or not — with how to communicate with each other. As Captain Keller tries to rein in his unruly daughter, his son, an awkward adolescent (played by Jon Pat Minick), tries to assert his own opinions on the matter and attempts to stand up to his stubborn father. Meanwhile, Keller’s wife, Kate (played by Julie Kinter, who makes her HART acting debut), and the captain, have a push-pull reaction when it comes to disciplining Helen.
“I want some peace in the house,” Captain Keller says.
It seems the captain has to relinquish a certain amount of power over his family before his children can have the chance to grow. After all, how can Helen hope to communicate with the world if he and his son cannot talk reasonably with each other?
As Annie Sullivan’s character puts it, “Language is to the mind more than what light is to the eye.”
We all want to communicate, to express the truth that is within us.
“The whole play is really that struggle,” Smith says.