One of the best biographic plays ever written, The Miracle Worker tells the story of Anne Sullivan, the teacher who brought language and compassion into Helen Keller’s dark, silent world. The characters present a wonderful challenge for actresses, and if the roles are performed well the audience will be granted a powerful theatrical experience.
Background of The Miracle Worker:
Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller took ill (possibly with Scarlet Fever) at the age of one-and-a-half. As a result, Helen became deaf and blind. Her parents nearly abandoned hope for the child, believing that the girl was mentally disabled and detached from all forms of communication. Fortunately, teacher Anne Sullivan came into Helen’s life and the rest is history.
Playwright William Gibson conducted interviews and incorporated events detailed in Keller’s autobiography to create the 1959 play, The Miracle Worker. The play garnered several Tony Awards, including Best Play. Then, Gibson’s work was adapted for the screen. Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke won Oscars for their portrayals of Sullivan and Keller. Today, The Miracle Worker is performed annually at Ivy Green, the birthplace of Helen Keller.
The Role of Helen:
One might think that it would be easy to play the part of Helen Keller. After all, there are no lines to memorize, with the exception of “Wah-wah" at the end. But don’t be fooled, it’s a challenging character to create on stage. The actress must portray a child who is lost in her own world. She doesn’t understand that things have names, that actions have consequences.
Helen’s character is indeed sympathetic, yet there is a devilishness about her. When she constantly smashes plates and bites people, the audience understands how exasperated the Keller family must be. But at the heart Helen’s character is a child that wants to be loved and longs to understand the world. Anne Sullivan opens up the door to that world, and in the final moments of the play, the actress playing Helen must reveal the emotional impact of the child’s self-discovery.
The Role of Anne:
Anne Sullivan presents an equally compelling challenge. For one, a slight Irish accent is called for; Anne was raised by Irish parents but grew up in Massachusetts. But more than an interesting dialect, Sullivan’s character is a tempest of stubbornness, ambition, regret and empathy.
She deals not only with the tumultuous Helen Keller, but with the child’s skeptical family. Also, she is haunted by her past. Voices of her younger brother, a boy who died of tuberculosis, echo in her memories, causing Anne to second guess her ability to save anyone, least of all Helen.
In the end, Anne is successful. She teaches Helen how to communicate with others. Although Anne has many powerful scenes of dialogue, some of her best moments are “line-less” as well. In particular, there is a wordless confrontation between Anne and Helen that begins as a food fight then turns into a finger-biting brawl.
If the actresses perform the fight scene just right, the audience will alternatively laugh out loud and hold their breath in astonishment. If the actresses do justice to the final scene at the water pump, the audience will have smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes.