There’s a point in William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” where Kate Keller commits the ultimate sacrifice of giving up her daughter.
Most people know the story of Helen Keller, struck deaf and blind at 19 months old by what doctors today speculate was scarlet fever or meningitis. Keller was isolated by her handicaps, so much that she was almost animalistic in her actions.
“It’s fair to say she was spoiled,” says Charlynn White, who plays Kate in Theatre Baton Rouge’s production of Gibson’s classic drama, which opens Friday, Oct. 30, on its Main Stage. “But Kate was Helen’s mother, and this was the relationship she had with her daughter.”
That is until the 20-year-old teacher named Annie Sullivan came into their home. She, too, was visually impaired, but she understood there was a curious mind inside Helen waiting to be released.
“The moment Helen responds to Annie, Kate knows that she’s lost her daughter,” White says. “She’s now Annie’s daughter.”
But Kate was willing to commit this selfless act for Helen to have a shot at a normal life.
“Helen would have just been an animal child, otherwise,” White says. “But it’s such an emotional time, and William Gibson writes it so beautifully in his play.”
“The Miracle Worker” premiered on Broadway in 1959. Gibson adapted his three-act stage play from his 1957 script for television’s “Playhouse 90.” Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Helen both reprised their roles for 1962 Oscar-winning film. The story opens in Tuscumbia, Alabama, where 6-year-old Helen’s parents have spoiled her out of pity. She’s wild, angry and throws massive tantrums when things don’t go her way, a habit that could have posed problems in casting of this show.
“We asked each of the girls auditioning for Helen to throw the biggest tantrum they’ve ever thrown,” says Jenny Ballard, Theatre Baton Rouge’s artistic director. “When we auditioned Susie, we thought she was way too nice.”
Ballard refers to Susie Lucas, who is playing Helen. Lucas was chosen for the part by both Ballard and the theater’s educational director, Jack Lampert, who are co-directing the play.
“When it came time to throw the tantrum, Susie was the best,” Ballard says.
Lucas’ understudy is Jordon Simoneaux, who will star in the lead role for one performance. Otherwise, the stage belongs to Lucas and Megan Barrios, who plays Sullivan, who convinces Captain Arthur Keller, played by Lee Allen, and his wife to give her two weeks alone with Helen.
Annie knew that any interference would inhibit Helen’s education, and she was able to bring the wild child around through persistence and consistency, constantly reinforcing her lessons through hand signals.
Then comes the breakthrough that changes not only Helen’s life but her family’s.
“This is a story of how people in a time that didn’t have the technology that we have changed the world,” Ballard says. “It was in a small way, but it showed that miracles can happen and change is possible.”
Keller eventually earned her bachelor’s degree from Ratcliff College, authored 12 books and became a political activist and lecturer. She also maintained a 43-year friendship with Annie Sullivan.
“Annie was in her 80s when she died, and Helen was sitting next to her bed,” Ballard says. “It took Annie only a month to teach Helen, and Helen really did become Annie’s daughter after that.”