A crash course in miracles

“There’s no dialogue,” says Ron McIntyre-Fender, adding, “In auditioning for a role like Helen Keller, you look for someone with pure gut instincts.”

The director of Asheville Community Theatre’s version of William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker goes on to stress the unusual challenge facing the winner of that role. “It has to be someone that remains aware of the character’s limitations [while] creating a character that evolves, changes,” he asserts.

Though the part has no lines to memorize, playing the young Helen Keller is an extraordinary undertaking, demanding a daunting blend of physical exertion and emotional insight. Blind, deaf and mute since the age of 2, Keller had also been dangerously spoiled by her helpless but well-meaning parents. When a penniless 20-year-old, Annie Sullivan, arrives at the wealthy Keller home in post-Civil War Tuscumbia, Ala., she discovers a veritable wild child: a pampered, destructive monster whose wordless rage drives her to overturn her baby sister’s cradle, eat from her family’s dinner plates with her hands, and attack anyone who attempts to impose order on her dark, silent hell.

Twelve-year-old Emma Berkey, making her ACT debut, describes the intense workout the part requires: “You have to move around a lot, and that gets you really tired,” she explains. “And the noises she makes — a lot of stomach noises — that’s really hard, and tires you out.”

A striking example is the chaotic breakfast scene, in which Sullivan dares to enforce decent table behavior on a child displaying fewer manners than the family pet. The ensuing wrangle is as hard to enact as it is unsettling to watch, maintains Berkey. “The breakfast scene was really hard,” the young actress declares. “You have to actually be in a fight, and slap each other.”

If Berkey’s command of her character’s wild motions is impressive, her mastery of Keller’s cruelly stifled emotions is nothing short of astonishing. Her eyes focus on nothing, and she utters only one word in the play, a guttural attempt at “water” that her teacher finally pulls from her mouth and memory in the play’s famous last scene. Yet Berkey bathes Helen with a luminous charisma. Fueling her character with pure intuition, she glows with soul and hope; her subtle performance (in non-tantrum moments) offers a trembling window into the great mind Sullivan was destined to liberate.

Before auditioning for the part, Berkey carefully prepared herself. “I watched the movie and read the play,” she recalls. That helped her win the role, says Berkey, but it took actually playing Keller to enable the actress to fully appreciate the young woman’s brilliance.

Fourteen-year-old Johanna Watson plays a blind girl at the orphanage that Sullivan (who was, herself, blind in childhood) leaves when she’s hired by the Kellers. Pretending you can’t see is more difficult than it sounds, the eighth-grader confesses:

“It takes practice [but] after a while, it gets to be a natural thing. You have to focus on things and not let yourself look at someone when they’re talking to you. That’s the hardest part — when someone’s saying something and they smile at you, and you can’t smile back.”

Watson, who started appearing in musicals in kindergarten and plans to pursue an acting career, also knows what it feels like to carry a show at a young age. Four years ago, she won the lead role of Scout in ACT’s production of To Kill A Mockingbird, an honor she found oddly unintimidating.

“I don’t think I was nervous enough,” laughs the actress. “That probably sounds weird, but I didn’t really realize, at the time, the responsibility of it — which was actually good, because it kept me from getting nervous. Other than that, it wasn’t something that I had to feel nervous about, because if I messed up on stage, everyone else was there to cover me.”

Fellow cast member Lauren Ford, also 14, remembers drawing similar comfort from her cohorts while starring in the ACT production of The Diary of Anne Frank last year: “I really didn’t feel like I was carrying the whole play on my shoulders — acting is so much of a team effort. The responsibility didn’t scare me: I had a wonderful cast backing me up.”

Ford plays a crone in The Miracle Worker, a character created by the director to depict the nightmares of orphanage life that continue to plague Sullivan in adulthood. In Gibson’s version, Sullivan’s tormentors, along with her dead brother Jimmy, are merely haunting, disembodied voices. But McIntyre-Fender’s vision came in three dimensions. “I wanted the nightmares to be seen,” he declares. Principally a lurid manifestation of Sullivan’s wretched childhood, the tangible nightmares also hint at the impossible-to-know demons lurking in Keller’s jailed senses.

The director, a recently returned Asheville native who apprenticed at the Dock Street Theatre in Charleston and directed at the Arkansas Art Center, is also an actor and teacher. In the latter role, he’s experienced firsthand the joy of opening young minds.

“My first class of children were homicide witnesses,” he recalls. “We used theater to help them. I saw the power that art had in their lives.”

The director ascribes a similar power to Sullivan.

“There’s something heroic in each of us,” he maintains. “We all have the capacity to change and better the lives around us. Annie Sullivan had nothing. She was loaned the fare to go to the Keller home. [Yet] she opened one of the greatest minds we have ever known.”

The heroic teacher remained at Keller’s side until Sullivan herself died in 1936. With her help, Keller ultimately learned to read and write using the Braille system, to type with a specially made typewriter, and to speak with remarkable clarity. She graduated with honors from Radcliffe College in 1904 and went on to write four books. In the 1940s, she brought her pacifist message to soldiers wounded in World War II and lectured throughout America (including a visit to Asheville in 1945), Europe and Asia on behalf of the disabled.

In her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Keller wrote: “Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. … [Books] talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.” And yet, in the eyes of the genteel Kellers, her own teacher was an awkward, uncouth novice — a poor speller with bad eyes who made no apologies for her youth and inexperience.

Candy Oertling is wrenchingly perfect as the blustery, heartsore Sullivan, her grit/compassion ratio being just what you’d expect a high-school teacher to bring to the part. Oertling, who’s been acting for almost 20 years, teaches theater and dance at North Buncombe High School. “The role of Annie Sullivan,” she declares, “really demonstrates what it is to be a teacher, from A to Z — the great joy of teaching, and also the agony.”

Perseverance in the face of incredible obstacles, stressing patience over pity — The Miracle Worker offers a multitude of inspiring messages in an unapologetically sentimental fashion. “There’s a bunch of miracles in the play. There’s a bunch of meaning,” affirms Berkey.

Underneath it all, though, hard work and imagination are what ultimately cleared a channel for Keller’s breakthroughs.

“It’s important for children to explore the arts,” asserts McIntyre-Fender, proud of his own role in guiding the talents of Emma Berkey and other young people. “The public-school system lets kids who don’t excel at what adults put priorities on drop through the cracks.”

Drama, the director points out, is as inextricable from history and psychology as it is from art and life.

“It’s all connected,” he concludes.

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