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'The Miracle Worker' to open at Peoria Players Threatre

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There are art works, whether visual or written, that can be disturbing while also inspiring, tense but uplifting. And often, those based on true stories can touch people deeply.

“The Miracle Worker” is one of those works. The drama written by William Gibson is based on a small yet pivotal part of the life of Helen Keller, who became blind, deaf and consequently mute when stricken by illness as an infant.

It opens a seven-show run Friday at 7:30 p.m. at Peoria Players Theatre in Lakeview Park. It is directed by Charles Killen.

In “The Miracle Worker,” a teacher named Anne Sullivan is hired by Helen Keller’s parent to help control the child by teaching her to trust and communicate. By this time, the parents’ pity on Helen has made her unable to communicate beyond basic needs and is uncontrollable.

Sullivan eventually succeeds but not without painstaking trials and parental interference. Largely because of Sullivan, Keller grew up to become a well-known lecturer, political activist and author; she was the first deaf/blind person to earn a college degree.

“This is a piece that really is timeless because it shows us that we need to focus on the abilities of people instead of their disabilities,” said Killen, who has directed many shows in local community theatre and often focuses on historical pieces and classic literature. He directed “The Diary of Anne Frank” at Peoria Players three years ago and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 2009.

What appealed to Killen about “The Miracle Worker” was the strength of the story and the characters. He was in the play about 20 years ago when it was produced by the Artistic Community Theatre in Pekin and decided then he would direct it his way on a bigger stage.

“I remember coming away from the show 20 years ago thinking this was an important story people need to see, not just read. Anne Sullivan, through tough love and hard work, unleashed the person inside Helen Keller and we know what the person she became. What happened can change everybody’s perspective about people with disabilities,” Killen said.

“This is a heartwarming story, really. And when the breakthrough finally occurs, the one that changes her life, you feel it. It is powerful and uplifting.”

Helen Keller is portrayed by 9-year-old Anna Hsu and handles the role with aplomb. “Anna does very well with it. She came into the audition with her own interpretation and without trying to copy anybody else. She wasn’t trying to play Patty Duke playing Helen Keller,” Killen said in reference to the actress who originated the role in the play and the 1962 film by the same name.    

“Anna came in with her own thoughts about the role. She was confident and she was ready to be molded into the character.”

Lindsay Nevells portrays Annie Sullivan, performing on stage for the first time in several years, Killen said. However, he added, she brings an understanding of the character and what it takes to be that person Anne Sullivan was because of similar disabilities in her family background. She has had training in sign language not to teach it, but because she wanted to learn it.

Other performers include Dave Montague as Captain Keller and Katlyn Linsley as Kate Keller, Helen’s parents. Will Swain portrays her brother James.

Gwyneth Mitchell portrays a young Anne Sullivan and Gareth Mitchell her brother Jimmy Sullivan in poignant scenes that tell the audience about Anne Sullivan’s upbringing.  

Killen said he hopes this play, like others he has directed that are based on history or the classics, will introduce people to local theatre who don’t normally attend.

“The Winter Playhouse at Corn Stock (Theatre) does a great job with the newer and edgier pieces, which is great for Peoria. But there is a void for this kind of dramatic theatre. We need more of it,” he said.

“The Miracle Worker” opens Friday at 7:30 p.m. and continues at 7:30 p.m. March 15, 20, 21, and 22 and at 2 p.m. on March 16 and 23. Tickets are $12 for adults and $9 for those 18 and under and are on sale at the Peoria Players box office, 688-4473 or www.peoriaplayers.org.

About the Author
Paul Gordon is the editor of The Peorian after spending 29 years of indentured servitude at the Peoria Journal Star. He’s an award-winning writer, raconteur and song-and-dance man. He also went to a high school whose team name is the Alices (that’s Vincennes Lincoln High School in Indiana; you can look it up).