Sunday, October 11, 2009

Deaf, blind miracle

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When the curtain rises Friday night on Cottage Theatre’s new production of “The Miracle Worker,” a brew of historical truth, playacting and real-life offstage drama will intertwine in telling the story of Helen Keller and the teacher who saved her from the isolation of blindness and deafness.

Judy Smith, making her directorial debut with this show, has her own real-life relationship with disability. She came down with a debilitating neurological disease three years ago that left her in a wheelchair for a year and cut short her passion for acting on stage. It still makes it difficult for her to function in day-to-day life.

Ten-year-old Kyra Siegel, who plays the blind and deaf young Helen Keller in the show, has more than the usual child’s grasp of blindness. She nearly lost the sight in one eye in an accident two years ago and remains legally blind in that eye.

To further mix fiction and fact, the role of Anne Sullivan, the teacher, is being played by Kyra’s real-life mother, dancer Pamela Lehan-Siegel.

“It’s challenging but it’s rewarding,” Lehan-Siegel says. “Kyra and I have worked together in other things but not in as close a relationship as the two individuals in this play are supposed to have. Our mother-daughter relationship has helped in some ways. But in other ways, it’s like working with your 10-year-old daughter.”

The play was written by William Gibson and won him the Tony Award for best play of 1959.

It depicts the life of Keller, an Alabama girl born to a former Confederate army captain in 1880. She became deaf and blind before the age of 2 following an illness.

Because of her sensory isolation, she was ill behaved and practically feral until she was sent by her family to Boston for treatment. There she encountered Sullivan, herself nearly blind. She taught Keller to communicate through tactile signs.

Keller graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904, becoming the first deaf-blind person in history to achieve a bachelor’s degree. She would go on to become a world-famous author and activist.

It was Mark Twain, a friend and fan of Keller’s, who first described Sullivan as a “miracle worker.”

Director Smith first decided she wanted to do “The Miracle Worker” because of the story’s close relationship to her own life. Smith had begun acting and working in local theater.

“I was totally enthralled with theater,” she says. “I love to sing and I love to dance.”

Then she came down with the neurological disorder, which remains not fully diagnosed but mimics multiple sclerosis.

“My gait and speech, coordination and memory, all those things are very affected,” she says. “Sometimes I’m actually in a wheelchair. I was in a wheelchair for the first year. It was extremely discouraging and depressing as far as theater went.”

She became fascinated with the story of “The Miracle Worker” and has researched it now for three years. She proposed doing the play more than a year ago to the Cottage Theatre, but was told to wait a year and get more experience. Now she’s plunging ahead with a job that’s both exciting and taxing.

She cast Lehan-Siegel and Kyra in the two lead roles after seeing them audition. Lehan-Siegel was actually trying out for a different part, but Smith says she’s perfect as Sullivan.

“I know Pamela’s personality,” the director says. “She is a perfectionist. She will not settle for anything less than perfect. So many of her character traits are just like Sullivan’s.”

And Kyra, the director says, was especially appropriate for the role of Keller because of that personal brush with blindness.

“She has a feeling for that,” Smith says.

It was Smith who rushed Kyra to an emergency room that day two years ago when she accidentally stabbed herself while her parents performed on stage. The girl had stabbed her eye with her father’s knife while sitting backstage during her parents’ performance.

Kyra herself says her accident is irrelevant to her role in show.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with it,” she says firmly. “I’m not trying to be half Helen Keller.”

The full-length role demands very physical acting.

Kyra navigates the stage by feel, throws wild tantrums in the early part of the story, and has physical confrontations with “Anne Sullivan,” her mother, who, in real life, doesn’t believe in hitting children even for discipline.

“I have to smack her in some scenes,” Kyra says. “Judy Smith said, ‘Don’t let this affect you at home. Don’t get mad at each other at home.’ ”

Both mother and daughter say they haven’t had the problem of getting mad at each other offstage. But they do really smack each other onstage, Kyra says.

“I do smack her. And she smacks me.”

Dave Kessler, Sue Schroeder-White and Max Maltz play members of Helen Keller’s family.

Playing servants, doctors, blind school children and other roles are Mark Allen, Chelsea Armstrong, Aaron Earlywine, Cedar Earlywine, Dan French, Laura Fullerton, Kay Fullerton, Rebecca Hart, Libby Ladd, Chloe Leczel, Alayna Pearson, Angela Pearson, Grant Pearson, Kathryn Pearson, Samuel Pearson, Halle Petersen, Jarett Raade, MJ Raade, Tori Raade, Cassie Ruud, Frank Schultz, Katherine Spriggs and Natalie White.

“It’s challenging, but it’s rewarding.” — PAMELA lEHAN-sIEGEL, on starring in an emotionally charged play opposite her daughter

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