CHS works miracles to share story of Helen Keller

Next week, the Claremont High School Theatre Department will dramatize one of the most remarkable breakthroughs in history.

The students will present William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker, the true-life account of one woman’s effort to free a deaf, blind and mute child from the shackles of ignorance and rage. The play, which is based on Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life, will be performed on February 26, 27 and 28 at 7:30 p.m.

Sophomore Sophie Willard-Van Sistine plays Helen Keller, a 6-year-old whose parents, hamstrung by pity and helpless in the face of their daughter’s disabilities, have allowed her to run wild.

Senior Madison Dahm plays Anne Sullivan, a 20-year-old teacher determined to save the nearly feral child from being institutionalized. As Anne tells Helen’s father, Captain Keller, played with convincing bluster by senior Matt Tornero, “The sun won’t rise and set for her all her life, and every day you’re telling her it will. What you and your pity do will destroy her.”

Both protagonists have undertaken hugely physical roles, most evident in the famous breakfast table scene in which Helen and Anne engage in a take-no-prisoners battle over table manners. Chairs are thrown and faces are slapped. Sophie notes that she and Madison must literally roll with the punches if any element of their highly choreographed struggle goes amiss. Luckily, the girls have experience working together as part of CHS’s improv-rich Comedy Sportz Team.

While Helen uses her vocal cords to express emotions ranging from excitement to wonderment, she has only one line in the play. In order to pull it off, Sophie has had to “work with a lot of sensory things—taste, smell and touch.”

As if it’s not tough enough to convey emotions ranging from rage to understanding to happiness without speaking, the young actress faces another challenge. Because Sophie is nearly as tall as Madison, guest director Signe O’Rourke devised a way to emphasize the physical difference between woman and child. Sophie spends much of the play on her knees, which are protected by kneepads.

Helen’s transformation is a gripping one, but the importance of Ms. Sullivan’s role in the play cannot be over-emphasized, according to Ms. O’Rourke.

“Everyone thinks the Miracle Worker is about Helen Keller,” she said. “The miracle worker is not Helen. The miracle worker is Annie. Her struggle is quite beautiful. It’s her play.”

Ms. O’Rourke taught theater at St. Lucy’s Priory High School for 22 years and still directs theater productions at Damien High School. She is hugely impressed by Madison, who she calls “a little Meryl Streep.” It is wonderful to see the heart Madison brings to her role as well as the authentic brogue she has cultivated for Anne, who is the daughter of Irish immigrants.

Wearing Anne’s trademark dark glasses, which protect the teacher’s nearly blind eyes from the light, Madison embodies a driven woman who knows she must push Helen to her limits in order to save her. As Anne writes in her diary, “My greatest challenge is how to discipline her without breaking her spirit.”

Madison said she is delighting in her first chance to play a role based on a real person. She has also found value in working with a director besides CHS Theatre Director Krista Elhai, who among other endeavors is busy preparing students for an upcoming thespian championship.

“It’s great because over the years, I’ll be working with lots of different people,” Madison, who plans to pursue a career in theater, said. “Signe really stresses working on character, reminding us what our emotional state should be.”

Ms. O’Rourke has come across many talented young actors in her years as a teacher. Still, she is amazed at the students in Ms. Elhai’s program.

The play also features a strong performance from senior Larissa Pullen as Mrs. Keller, who teeters between hope and despair as she fights for the future of a child she loves.

Ms. O’Rourke said it has been remarkably easy drawing good characterizations from the CHS Thespians, something she attributes to Ms. Elhai.

“I don’t know what kind of magic she casts over students. Their commitment is extraordinary.” Ms. O’Rourke said. “I said, ‘Are you guys being paid? What’s the deal?’ They take what they do very seriously. I’m knocked out by these kids.”

Anyone who sees the CHS production of “The Miracle Worker” is sure to be inspired by a story of uncommon determination. As Helen Keller herself said, “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.”

Performances are set for Thursday, February 26, Friday, February 27 and Saturday, February 28 at 7:30 p.m. in Claremont High School’s Don Fruechte Theatre for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $10 at the box office, $9 presale. For tickets and information, call the theater department at 909-624-9053, ext. 30463 or visit www.chstheatre.cusd.claremont.edu.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier

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