March 18, 2011

Helen Keller

Portraying the early years of Helen Keller and how teacher Annie Sullivan unlocked her silent world, William Gibson’s acclaimed play “The Miracle Worker” opens in Lostine this weekend.

MidValley Theatre Company’s 23rd production since its inception in 1995, the inspirational drama represents a watermark for the group in terms of complexity and commitment. Thousands of hours have gone into making the performance as realistic as possible.

Eleven-year-old Morgan Anderson, a sixth grader at Enterprise Elementary, plays Helen, while newcomer to MidValley boards Kelly Weese, plays Annie. The pair has spent long hours putting themselves into their characters, learning finger spelling and mastering the physical challenges of their roles.

“I am completely amazed at the cast, especially Morgan, who is very believable as a blind child,” said Kathy Vernam, a local teacher and former educational interpreter for the deaf who spent several weeks working with the actors. “Not only did they have to learn their lines and their character, they had to learn a new way to communicate and to portray that new way in a convincing manner.”

Because of a shared determination to do justice to the classic story, several cast members voluntarily took on extra practices in addition to normal rehearsals, which started in January. Numerous days also went into constructing a detailed Victorian set that includes a garden house, bedroom, dining room and a front porch with a yard. The design is geared towards creating a sense of intimacy and inviting the audience into Helen’s world.

“This is someone in our immediate past, who when she learned that she could communicate, it was like opening a door for all other people like her, and allowing them through that door, to be able to grasp their potential,” director Kate Loftus said. “It’s inspiring and necessary to learn about them. Being able to see the story live gives you the insight, the feeling of actually being there.”

Born shortly after the Civil War, Helen’s life was forever changed at 19 months old by an intense fever that left her permanently deaf and blind. She was frustrated, unmanageable, and even violent by age 6 when Sullivan agreed to teach her.

Though she had no prior teaching experience, Sullivan, who had severe vision impairments as a child herself, was deeply empathetic, tireless, and creative in her methods. Within a few months, Helen had transformed into an avid and affectionate pupil. Within a few years, she went to Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusets, where among other things, she mastered French in three months.

Helen Keller would go on to become the first deaf/blind person to gain a bachelor of arts degree and a world-renowned author and activist. Anne Sullivan spent nearly 50 years as Helen’s instructor and companion. “Teacher” was the only name Helen ever used for her.

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