Tuesday, April 10, 2012

BOSTON GLOBE:Wheelock Family Theatre circles back to ‘The Miracle Worker’

When William Gibson’s “The Miracle Worker” debuted on Broadway in 1959, the drama about the relationship between Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, shone a spotlight on the issue of disabilities and human potential. The play was featured on the cover of Time magazine, and the 1962 film version earned Academy Awards for Anne Bancroft and child actor Patty Duke.

More than a half-century later, the story “The Miracle Worker” tells does not have the same cultural prominence. Education and awareness about disabilities — not just Keller’s deaf-blindness, but all kinds of developmental impairments — are more advanced and ingrained than ever before. Yet at the Wheelock Family Theatre, Gibson’s play remains a beloved and significant piece of the repertoire. On Friday, the theater opens a month long run of the play.

It’s the third time Susan Kosoff has directed the play at Wheelock, and she intends it to be her last. Kosoff, the theater’s longtime producer, is set to retire after the show closes. A cofounder of Wheelock Family Theatre in 1981, she said the play has meaning for her “on a lot of different levels.”

“For me, the play is about what good teaching is about,” Kosoff explained after a recent rehearsal, sitting in the middle of the empty theater. Wheelock College’s commitment to education and the theater’s ongoing outreach to members of the deaf and blind communities give the drama particular meaning, she said.

There’s also a personal attachment. “The Miracle Worker” was the first play Kosoff saw in Boston in 1959, while she was attending boarding school. Bancroft and Duke were in that production, preparing for their move to Broadway.
“I remember it clear as day,” Kosoff said. “I loved it. I was very moved by it.”

The playwright Gibson, who died in 2008 at 94, lived in Stockbridge for much of his life.

His best-known play is a masterwork, said Kosoff. Unlike stage directions in other scripts, which can be open to varying degrees of interpretation, those written into “The Miracle Worker” demand strict adherence, she said.

“That’s a lesson hard-won — you really have to pay attention to these stage directions.”

For young students, Helen Keller is still a familiar historic figure. Eight-year-old Audree Hedequist of Wellesley did a report on Keller in her second-grade class. Soon after, she learned that Wheelock would be producing “The Miracle Worker.” Having appeared in previous shows there, including “Charlotte’s Web” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” she auditioned for the part of Helen.

To prepare, she tried more than once to watch the original “Miracle Worker” movie, she said.

“I couldn’t stay up for the entire movie,” she admitted with a sheepish smile. “It’s so long!”

She got the part anyway. When her parents came to pick her up, she sprinted from the theater.

“I ran up to the car and I’m like, ‘Yea! Yea! Yea!”, she recalled, sitting in a deserted student lounge after rehearsal with her father, Dan, an orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Hospital Boston, and her mother, Celeste, a lawyer by training who now has her hands full with four children — three of them boys, all younger than Audree.

By the age of 4, Audree already had the acting bug. She saw a school production of “The Wiz” and declared, “I want to do this!”

Soon she was writing plays of her own. “I used to bring a script every day to school,” she said, eating a bag of fruit snacks from a vending machine. “I had a little club.” She is now fully committed to acting and writing for the theater, she said: “Both would be good.”
After watching a few rehearsals of “The Miracle Worker,” Dan Hedequist saw just how difficult the part of Helen could be for his daughter. “So much of our lives, we’re watching people when they talk,” he said, which, of course, Helen cannot do.

The family is especially pleased that the play has been so instructive about people with disabilities, said Celeste Hedequist.

“Helen was such a great figure,” she said. “We’re really proud that the story offers so much hope to so many people.”

For research, the family made a trip to the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, where Anne Sullivan studied and later brought her student.

“It was really cool to touch the big glass globe that Helen touched,” said Audree.

In past performances, Wheelock has cast slightly older children in the role of Helen, said Kosoff, but she believes Audree is mature enough to handle it.

“She has amazing concentration for a kid that age,” she said. “We knew she could do it, and that her family would be dedicated to it.”

In most scenes, the untutored Helen’s wildness has been understandably fun for an 8-year-old to portray.

“I love the parts where I get picked up and thrown everywhere, where I’m going through [backstage] escape stairs and running up and down the hallways,” Audree said, her pink sneakers dangling over the side of the couch. “It’s really fun to run around and throw things everywhere.

“I don’t do that at my house,” she added, glancing over at her parents.

Audree’s inherent sweetness has created one challenge in particular, said her director. For the play’s famous confrontations between Helen and her teacher, the young actor has been reluctant to behave as aggressively as the role demands.
“She’s a pretty sweet kid, and she has to really slap Annie,” said Kosoff. “She has to swing the doll and hit her. We’re still working on that.”

James Sullivan can be reached at sullivanjames@verizon.net.

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