One of the most inspiring stories in American lore is that of Helen Keller, who was rendered deaf and blind by a high fever at 18 months old but went on to graduate with honors from Radcliffe College and become a world-renowned crusader for women's rights and the disabled and a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Born in 1880 to a family of modest means in an Alabama town, little Helen fell ill in 1882, long before drugs that could have prevented her disabilities. Everyone assumed she was doomed to a life of silence and isolation. Relatives suggested that she be institutionalized.
Instead, her parents sought a teacher for their daughter and found Annie Sullivan, a 21-year-old woman who would become known as "the Miracle Worker," the one person who could teach 7-year-old Helen how to communicate. The Tony Award-winning drama of that name opens Thursday at the Forum at Stage West Community Playhouse and continues weekends through Feb. 17.
The play covers the brief but pivotal time in Helen Keller's life (she lived to age 87), when Sullivan taught her the connection between words and objects and actions. It was a rough battle, as young Helen had been allowed to do as she pleased, throw temper tantrums, and run slipshod over the entire Keller household.
The play was adapted from a 1957 Playhouse 90 teleplay, which itself was based on Keller's autobiography, The Story of My Life.
The roles are physically and mentally challenging and earned Tony and/or Academy awards for actors Anne Bancroft, who played Annie, and Patty Duke, who portrayed Helen, both on Broadway and in the movie version.
Playing Annie Sullivan at Stage West is Jessica Virginia, who has won several HAMI Awards, including one for her role as Catherine in the drama Proof. Rising Star winner Holly Frendberg will portray Helen Keller. The director is George Dwyer (title role in Sweeney Todd), himself a HAMI winner several times over and also a playwright.
Playing Helen's parents are Toni Berlinger Merchant (HAMI as Stella in The Uninvited) as Kate Keller and Sam McCall (Mitch in A Streetcar Named Desire) as Arthur Keller, a former captain in the Confederate Army. Dan Brijbag (multi HAMI winner) plays Dr. Anagnos, the director of the School for the Blind who asked Sullivan to be Helen's teacher.