By PAM JOHNSON
The Jonesborough Repertory Theatre is pleased to present “The Miracle Worker,” running Friday, Jan. 25, through Sunday, Feb. 10. This classic, intense, yet heartwarming story about Helen Keller and her extraordinary teacher, Annie Sullivan, will give audiences a deeper understanding of the trials and complications of Helen’s childhood.
“I think that most people know who Helen Keller is,” explained the director, Janette Gaines, “but to be able to actually see the real life story of what the family went through brings it to a different level for the audience.”
Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880. At 19 months of age, she contracted an unknown disease (possibly scarlet fever or meningitis), which left her blind and deaf. This, of course, broke down any normal communication with the child, so the family spent years not knowing the best way to handle this.
Gaines said she can relate. “My daughters are hard of hearing,” she said. “They don’t hear the same things we do. They also have autism, which is a lot like being deaf since they may not be aware of what’s going on around them. I had to unlock communication and understanding with my girls.”
That’s the bottom line of “The Miracle Worker” — unlocking the communication of Helen Keller. The title character is Annie Sullivan, who truly does work miracles for the family. She had been blind and underwent surgeries that helped her to see. She was only 20 years old when first employed by the Keller family. And she went to extreme lengths teaching Helen how to communicate.
“It’s amazing how Helen Keller went through all this,” said Olivia Castillo, who plays Helen in the show, “and how Annie didn’t give up.”
Annie Sullivan refused to treat Helen like she had disabilities. Unlike the child’s family, she didn’t give in to her tantrums or allow her to act disrespectfully. She pretty much “took the bull by the horns.”
“Annie never just gives up,” said Hope Hiester, who portrays Annie Sullivan. “And I’m a lot like that. Her story has helped me personally get through things in my own life. I have gastroparesis (a condition that affects the normal spontaneous movement of the muscles in your stomach) which makes everyday things difficult, so everything most people take for granted is a challenge. And Annie didn’t let anything stop her, so I’ve learned from her.”
Hiester’s character is not only physically challenged by working with Helen, but also emotionally and mentally challenged, and she perseveres through it all. “If you want to see a story that defies all odds and teaches you the value of hard work and perseverance, that’s what this show is. And trying to make the best of any situation.”
The story conveys just why Annie needed to persevere. Helen presented so many challenges for her family. “I’ve been around those with physical and mental disabilities,” said Mike Ellis, who plays Helen’s father, “so I can relate a little knowing how the parents struggled. I’ve been involved with The Arc (an organization that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families) so I see how and why the parents would need some assistance, and that helps me understand why Helen’s parents need a break.”
The show takes an honest look at family relationships and the struggles they have because of such a demanding child. It also reveals their love and commitment, though at times very strained, to not only Helen, but to each other. Each person in this show has his or her own “demons” to overcome, but those challenges are what make each character so special.
Emma Montag, who plays one of the blind students, is hearing impaired, so she understands the strong messages of this show. “Everyone’s beautiful and unique in their own way. I like to use that as awareness for other people to let them realize that just because they’re different or have something that makes them stand out doesn’t mean they should feel insecure about themselves. And that’s what makes ‘The Miracle Worker’ such a loving story, for all families, for all generations.”
Annie totally believed that — for both herself and for Helen. They each had something to give. She helped to find the beautiful and the determination and the courage in both of them. She went way beyond what Helen’s family had ever thought possible.
Hope said it best. “Annie didn’t just give Helen a few words and say, ‘You live within your means; this is how you have to be.’ She said, ‘I can unlock the whole world for you.’ ”
And so she did.
“Theatre is about communicating a story,” Gaines said. “This particular story is about the importance of communication in everyone’s life. It’s got a good message that everyone can connect with. Audience members will find moments that will touch them and moments that will make them laugh. It’s a wonderful, triumphant story that will make people feel good.”
“The Miracle Worker” is by William Gibson and directed by Janette Gaines. The sponsors are Ballad Health, Ignacy Fonberg, the Law Offices of James R. Wheeler, and Sonia King/Mary B. Martin.
Rounding out the cast are Auggie Carver, Lorianne Carver, Lucy Carver, Renee Hickman, Pam Johnson, Charles Landry, Chloe Ledes, Kyle Mason, Kalliopi Papas, and Caroline Peccia.
Show times are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $16 general admission, $14 for students and seniors. The theatre is located at 125.5 West Main Street, Jonesborough. To purchase tickets, call the Historic Jonesborough Visitors Center at (423) 753-1010 or go online to www.jonesboroughtheatre.com.