Helen Keller is an American heroine, an icon of strength and accomplishment who overcame tremendous odds to succeed. She was the first deaf and blind woman to earn a bachelor of arts degree and to emerge from almost complete non-verbal isolation to author, activist and lecturer. Triumphs such as these would have been impossible without a voice. It was a lesser-known hero named Anne Sullivan who gave her that voice.
Both women are celebrated this month by Rockville Little Theatre (RLT) in a production of William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker,” the classic play based on Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life.”
Like many of us, Laura W. Andruski, director of RLT’s “The Miracle Worker,” first learned about Keller and Sullivan in grade school. “Having seen the Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke movie on late-night TV, I was mesmerized by their performances and astounded to learn that the movie was based on actual events,” she said. “Both of their lives were so inspirational, and for a young girl looking for strong female role models, both Helen and Annie fit the bill.”
By the time Andruski was in high school, she had the opportunity to portray Helen in a drama workshop. “As I matured and took on more directing roles, I knew that this play would be on my ‘bucket list’ of works to direct,” she said, adding that she feels “honored to be able to direct this highly-acclaimed work for RLT with a stellar group of performers, who have committed themselves to portraying these real-life characters as accurately as possible.”
“The Miracle Worker” is based on the true story of friendship between a teacher, Anne Sullivan (played by Lena Winter), and her deaf and blind student, Helen Keller (10-year-old Meredith Abramson). Set in Tuscumbia, Ala., 18-month-old Keller contracted an illness that left her blind and deaf. Her parents (played by Brian Lyons-Burke and Heather Andrews), who pity and spoil her, are desperate to communicate with their distant daughter. They enlist the help of 20-year-old Sullivan. After many difficult weeks together, Sullivan breaks through the isolation and teaches Helen the power of language.
Anne Sullivan, born Mansfield Sullivan Macy, was an American teacher who, at age 5, contracted trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease. This left her blind and without reading or writing skills. She received her education at the renowned Perkins School for the Blind. During her time there, she had several successful eye operations and her vision significantly improved. In 1886, upon graduation–and valedictorian of her class, she became a teacher to Keller.
Many proficient local actors auditioned for RLT’s “The Miracle Worker,” resulting in “a strong cast and equally stalwart production team,” Andruski said. As for Andruski, she answered a call for director submissions that the theater group, now in its 69th season, puts out every year. Directors may submit proposals for plays on an approved list and board of directors members cast votes on the best proposals. Votes are based on content matter of the play as well as the suitability for the audience and for the venue–the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre.
Sets were built in part by volunteers amid coffee, donuts and sawdust on Saturday mornings. A behind-the-scenes factoid about the set co-producer Emily Mullin shared is that “the show features the iconic water pump from the [“The Miracle Worker”] movie, and it actually works!”
RLT, founded in 1948—the same year as the first Tony Awards, is the oldest continuously operating live theater group in the Rockville area. From the start, RLT provided high-quality performances at reasonable prices. It was born at a time when Broadway showed promise and profit, and for $1.20, audiences saw the premieres of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Heiress,” “An Inspector Calls,” “Brigadoon” and “Finian’s Rainbow.”
Meanwhile, in Rockville, six friends formed RLT. Its first production, Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever,” was presented in Christ Episcopal Church’s Parish Hall. RLT continued to hold performances there until 1958 when they then moved to Broome Junior High School. In September 1960, the new Rockville Civic Center Auditorium (now the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre) became RLT’s home, and performances have been held there ever since. The group continues to present a mix of old and new plays—drama, comedy, mystery.
Remaining performances of “The Miracle Worker,” which opened Feb. 3, start at 8 p.m. Feb. 10 and 11 and at 2 p.m. Feb. 12 at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, 603 Edmonston Drive, Rockville. Run time is approximately 2-1/2 hours, with a 15-minute intermission. The Feb. 10 show will be an American Sign Language (ASL)-interpreted performance. Tickets are $22, $20 for seniors (62-plus) and students (with valid I.D.). Call 240-314-8690 or visit http://rlt-online.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.