How did Helen Keller go from being a blind, deaf and ill-tempered child to being one of the most important women of the 20th century? This is the question that "The Miracle Worker," opening next week at The Little Theatre of Walla Walla, explores.
Playwright William Gibson wrote "The Miracle Worker" in 1957 for television, largely basing the script off Keller's autobiography, "The Story of My Life." Gibson then adapted the story for Broadway, where it won several Tony Awards with the famous cast that went on to make the 1962 movie that helped proliferate Keller's story.
The story focuses on Helen's relationship with her teacher Annie Sullivan, a partially blind orphan born of Irish immigrants from South Boston. The play highlights the struggle to educate Helen and gives weight to Sullivan's role as a teacher.
Co-director Terry McConn pointed out that the title reveals the emphasis of the story.
"The play is called 'The Miracle Worker.' As William Gibson says, it's not called 'The Miracle Workee.' He was very infatuated with Annie, the author was. But of course, Helen and Annie work as a team," he said.
For "The Miracle Worker," Terry and his wife Sherry, who both graduated from Whitman College with drama degrees, have teamed up to direct their first play at The Little Theatre since the 1970s. Their work began with research to find the best way to present the story. What they found was that Gibson gives them all the direction they needed.
Terry said he saw no reason to stray from Gibson's directions, and thus this production will be "a very traditional rendition."
"There's nothing wrong with this play ... It's a beautiful story of someone escaping from darkness through courage and through teaching and through language. You can't improve on that," Terry said.
Fifty-seven people auditioned for the show, the most the Little Theater has ever had. Of those 57, 30 were girls vying for the part of Helen.
Terry and Sherry ultimately chose 11-year-old Cassidy Meliah to play Helen, because she was not only able to "create a beginning feeling of silence and darkness" but was also physically strong, a characteristic that is essential for the fight scenes that occur between Helen and Annie.
Meliah said that to get into Helen's mindset, she focuses on leaving reality behind.
Jessica Barkl will be playing Annie. She cherishes the role not only because she has an extensive background in theater, but because she has experience teaching adults with disabilities.
Barkl said her initial challenge was finding the right voice for Annie, who spoke with a unique mix of Britsh-flavored mid-Atlantic, Irish and South Boston accents. But her voice training and line-memorizing didn't prepare her for the physical challenges that arose once she and Meliah started rehearsing (and wrestling) together.
Barkl said, "I told her (Meliah) just to keep in her world and I would protect myself and her as best as I could. And so, that gets a little different. You're at home memorizing your lines and suddenly you're encountering an 11-year-old and they all go out the window. It's a very taxing role."
In portraying Helen and Annie's intimate yet contentious relationship, Meliah and Barkl had to get to know each other fast. Barkl recalled one rehearsal early on that involved a moment where Helen feels her way around Annie's face.
"She was like, 'I'm sorry my fingers kind of stink,' and I'm like, 'I don't care!'" Barkl said.
Aside from the feedback they get from each other, the cast and directors were also able to get some advice from Patty Duke, who played Helen in the original Broadway play and the film adaptation, for which she won an Academy award.
Terry and Sherry met Duke in Spokane in 2003, where they saw a play in which she performed. She was so gracious that they did not hesitate to let Duke know about their upcoming performance. Duke was unable to attend, but the directors were able to set up a speaker-phone conversation with the cast and crew.
"She told the actors good advice about doing roles that have been immortalized ... to make sure that you realize it's your role, it's your spirit on stage," Terry said.
Duke also autographed some items that will be raffled at the theater.
Gil Alden, who plays Helen's father, Captain Keller, also commented on the emotional power of the story.
"The timeless themes that are very attractive are the overcoming of adversity and human interaction," Alden said. "And this play shows that and that's what people are going to take away from this."