When Sara Schoeffler, Elise Steinberg, Emmaline Westfall and Milla Smith were cast in the key roles in "The Miracle Worker," they thought they would be telling the inspiring story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
And they are: William Gibson's Tony-winning play is faithful to the story of Keller, the blind, deaf and mute girl who became a famed author and political activist, and Sullivan, the teacher who broke through her shell.
But the actresses probably didn't know that they'd also be getting a crash course in the art of stage combat: "The Miracle Worker" is packed with knock-down brawls between Keller and Sullivan.
And Gibson outlines the fights, right there in the script, "beat by beat," said Laura Beck-Ard, who's directing the CSD Theaters production of Gibson's Tony Award-winning play. The show opens tonight for a three-week run at the Corvallis High School Theater (see the information box for details).
In fact, a scene in which Sullivan (played in evening shows by Schoeffler and in Saturday matinees by Steinberg) slaps Keller across the face is shocking to watch — and, in some ways, may be more shocking to audiences today than it was when the play debuted in 1959, in part because we have different ideas today about disciplining children than Anne Sullivan had in the early 1890s, when the play is set.
When Sullivan arrives at the Keller family home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, she's been summoned by a desperate family: Helen, who was left deaf and blind by illness when she was 19 months old, has been pitied and spoiled by her parents all her life and is prone to tantrums. (The play, although generally faithful, plays a bit with Keller's age; in real life, she was 6 when Sullivan arrived; in the play, she's around 11.)
Sullivan, who was blind herself, believes it's necessary for her to teach her charge some discipline before any other progress can be made. She convinces the Kellers that she needs two weeks alone with Helen to achieve any progress in the girl's education.
"This is a time when people believed 'spare the rod and spoil the child,'" Beck-Ard said. But yet, she noted, the Kellers "didn't hit Helen. They didn't discipline Helen in any way."
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When Sullivan attempts to discipline Helen, it leads to some intense (and very physical struggles). Beck-Ard said that the actresses playing Sullivan and Helen spent plenty of time working with a professional stage combat artist. (Because the role is so physically demanding, Westfall and Smith will alternate performances.)
The play draws some of its dramatic charge by contrasting Sullivan, a 19-year-old fresh from the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, with the deep South ways of the Keller family, still smarting from wounds inflicted at the Civil War more than a generation ago. (In one amusing scene, one of the Keller boys compares Sullivan's techniques to the tactics Ulysses S. Grant used to win victory at Vicksburg.)
Beck-Ard said she explored the idea of making Sullivan's character more like a schoolteacher, "but it didn't really sit right in terms of the character." Sullivan, just 19 years old as the play begins, was "making this up as she went along," and the play works best when it highlights both her headstrong ways and her moments of doubt when she's unsure if she'll be able to help Helen. "Anne didn't ever conform to any of the social customs."
Beck-Ard said she directed the play some 15 years ago at Yokota Air Base in Japan and loved it.
"It's the story of a such a powerful woman who overcame so many difficulties," she said.
And the show's many parts for women made it a particularly good fit: "We have so many strong girls right here," she said.
For their parts, the girls didn't know much about the play "The Miracle Worker," until the auditions, but they knew something about Helen Keller, and the play has offered insight into her life. "It's a really cool show," said Steinberg. "She had such a hard childhood."
And that was even before she started scrapping with Anne Sullivan.