Ivoryton Playhouse Works Miracles with Helen Keller Story

By Amy J. Barry

The true-life story of the blind and deaf Helen Keller, who despite overwhelming adversity, breaks out of her prison of darkness and silence, is an uplifting reminder that when tested, human beings are capable of overcoming the most astounding of all odds.

Keller’s transformation through her young and spirited teacher Annie Sullivan was dramatized in William Gibson’s 1959 Tony-Award winning play The Miracle Worker starring Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller—both of whom also starred in the 1962 feature film directed by Arthur Penn.

Jacqui Hubbard, Ivoryton Playhouse executive director, has chosen to present the classic drama as the sixth production of its 2009 season (Sept. 23-Oct. 11) with a twist— Jenilee Simons Marques, a deaf 13-year-old actor and student at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford, plays Helen Keller, bringing a deeper level of believability to the biographical role.

The play, directed by Hubbard, is produced in association with the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), which had its home in Chester for many years before moving to Hartford.

“We’re committed to doing one drama a year and we try to do something that will enhance what students are learning in school,” Hubbard says, “and Helen Keller is on the school curriculum.”

Hubbard says three matinees are already filled with students from Connecticut schools.

“After the financial meltdown this year, no one wanted to see a play that would bring them down,” Hubbard says. “We chose plays with inspirational or upbeat themes and are very interested in theater that creates magic between the actors and the audience. The Miracle Worker is one of those special plays because of the subject matter and Will Gibson’s wonderful writing.”

Hubbard explains that she’d had conversations with Aaron Kubey, NTD executive director, about making the show available to deaf audiences and he’d asked her if she’d considered using a deaf actor in the role of Helen.

“I hadn’t, but I realized it would bring a whole different layer to the production—and would be interesting from the directing point of view. I’ve had to approach every scene differently; there can’t be verbal cues as Jenilee wouldn’t hear them.”

 “I like that I’m already deaf, but trying to be blind and act blind is challenging,” said Jenilee in an interview interpreted by NTD’s Betty Beekman of Deep River.

Jenilee says she likes that Helen Keller’s mother spoiled her all the time, but Annie loved her enough to give her the discipline she needed to learn to communicate.

Jenilee has performed in six plays at American School for the Deaf and says acting has been her goal since she was five.

“Marlee Matlin, the deaf actress, inspired me to be an actor,” Jenilee says, “and [to realize] that deaf people can be successful in the arts. They can do everything except hear.”

Andrea Maulella plays Annie Sullivan and the New York Equity actor, is making her debut at Ivoryton Playhouse.

“I’ve never worked on something this physical,” Maulella says. “It’s like choreography. I’m thrilled to work with Jenilee. I’m so excited to see how we’re going to do this. I’m intrigued to see where this process will go.”

Elizabeth Erwin, also a New York Equity actor, returns to the Playhouse, where she was last seen as Lizzie in The Rainmaker, to play Helen’s mother, Kate Keller.

Erwin likes her character because “She is such an optimist. She won’t give in to some of the men in her life to put her daughter away. To her credit, she picks her battles.”

“The Captain may have looked like he was in charge, but she was the glue,” agrees Bif Carrington of Farmington, who is making his debut at the Playhouse as Captain Keller, Helen’s father.

Carrington says he’s especially excited that this is his first chance to play a real live historical character on stage.

“I want to get the right amount of realism—and at the same time, put some of myself into it.”

The Miracle Worker runs through Oct. 11 at the Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main St. in Ivoryton. A signed performance for the deaf will be held Oct. 3 at 8 p.m. For tickets and performance schedule, call the box office at 860-767-7318 or online visit www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

This feature was published in Sept. 17 Living section, Shore Publishing Community Newspapers.

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