Theater : "Miracle Worker" at high school
When Kate Murray first came to the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School, she wanted to stage a production of "The Miracle Worker" immediately. The play had long been one of her favorites, but she decided that it would be too large of an undertaking for her first year.
Now in her fifth year of directing, Ms. Murray decided it was the time to bring the sounds and sights of the deaf and blind to the Vineyard stage. The drama will unfold this weekend at the Performing Arts Center.
"The Miracle Worker" is William Gibson's 1959 adaptation of Helen Keller's 1903 autobiography, "The Story of My Life." The play dramatizes the initial meeting of a young and spoiled Helen Keller (senior Katie Clarke), and her mentor Annie Sullivan, (sophomore Mariah Mackenzie). When Sullivan is hired to be the governess of the deaf and blind Helen, with no clear notion of how to do so, she valiantly determines to teach Helen to communicate. This central drama of communication forces all of the members of the Keller family to reexamine their relationships and their love for each other.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Performing the play with a high school cast of 23 is not an easy task. "Helen Keller is one of the most challenging roles ever created," said Ms. Murray. "If you really put yourself in the role you are going blindly and soundlessly through this, and that's really scary." The challenge of becoming this character was given to actress Katie Clarke. With almost no lines, the role is a physical one. Ms. Clarke was tasked with distancing herself from the poise and balance that most performers would try to cultivate. Her training included blindfolds and kneepads, and a few bruises until she achieved a practiced awkwardness.
As Anne Sullivan, Ms. Mackenzie, who has been involved behind the scenes in many high school shows (she was the stage manager of last year's "A Chorus Line"), became an actress for the first time. The switch from behind the scenes to center stage was a stressful one, but the stress was shared and eased among a tight-knit group of actors.
"The hardest thing for me was to figure out how Katie moved," Ms. MacKenzie said. "Being able to feel comfortable holding someone, being slapped by someone, that was a surprising challenge. We were warned the play was physical, but putting that choreography together with character and dialogue was a real challenge."
Acting is not the only responsibility handed to the students. Junior Josh Crowther is in charge of the Performing Arts Center lighting and sophomore Salvadore McNamara handles most of the sound. They, along with the six other members of the technical crew, ensure that the play runs smoothly as every scene is painstakingly prepared with the correct lighting, sound effects and prompts. If the technical crew does their job as perfectly as they hope, they should hardly be noticed.
Most of the play takes place at the Keller Homestead where Anne's difficulties with communication are juxtaposed against the difficulties of the relationships within the Keller family. Junior Katie Ann Mayhew, who plays Helen's mom, said that the close relationships in the play took some getting used to. "Katie Clarke, who plays my daughter, is older than me, so I had to get myself into the mindset of a mom. With time you become comfortable and ease into a character, and you get more and more committed to a character as you understand them better. All of the relationships in a musical have to be really big, dramas are more about being real."
Helen's lack of sight and hearing put her in almost constant physical contact with the other characters. "Yes, the words are important, but the truth is, the play is based on the physical," said Ms. Murray. "A lot had to be choreographed, planned, and had to be safe. The actors have to touch each other, and that's not always easy for high school students. That's one of the reasons that this play is very ambitious, but that challenge is only more of a reason to do it."
Though she described herself as "rusty," Ms. Murray, a former special education teacher, has known sign language from a young age (her great-grandmother practiced the Vineyard sign language in Chilmark), and has staged Shakespeare with deaf students as a guest artist at Newton South High School. Ms. Murray decided to add more sign language to the play, having actors portraying characters from the Perkins Institute speak as well assign their lines.
The students had a long road to travel to feel comfortable with characters that were so different than themselves, and with opening night upon them, they have the opportunity to let their hard work speak for itself. "We've learned to trust ourselves and our characters, because as soon as you do that, you can trust everyone else," said Ms. Clarke. "The cast helps you believe in yourself. They're always right there for you if you need help. This play made me realize that a cast is an ensemble: you need to trust them fully so that they can trust you."
"The Miracle Worker" opens tonight, Thursday, Nov. 13, at 7 pm. It runs Friday, Nov. 14 at 7 pm, and closes Saturday Nov. 15 with a 2 pm matinee. Carol Baldwin, an American Sign Language interpreter who works with one of the actors, will translate the matinee into sign language. Tickets at the door: $10; $7 for students.
Ben Williams is a regular contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.