Communication themes take center stage at Cortez Middle School, as theater students tackle the 1957 drama “The Miracle Worker.”
The play tells the story of Helen Keller, the famous deaf-blind child educated and cared for by “miracle worker” Annie Sullivan. The school’s 54-student cast and crew members are readying to perform, with opening night set for Friday.
“One of the best things with this play is being able to see how hard physically it is for some of these characters, but to see how mentally challenging it is, not just for the crew but also for the cast,” said stage manager Izabella Balfour, an eighth grade student. “Figuring out the time era, and just different things. We have to be able to work together as one, to be able to get this play done.”
“The Miracle Worker,” written by playwright William Gibson, tracks the education of Keller. Keller, blind and deaf since infancy, lacks communication abilities and discipline – until her parents hire Sullivan to tutor their daughter. Sullivan helps transform her student, teaching Keller language through felt hand signals and allowing her to become part of a seeing- and hearing-dominated world.
Theater teacher Angela Gabardi said she chose “The Miracle Worker” because she felt this year’s crop of students could handle the complex play and because of the messages of hope and support woven throughout the storyline.
“I think at this age, we think a lot of times our teachers can sometimes be our biggest enemy, and just realizing how much they’re actually our biggest fighter,” Gabardi said.
The play comes with a range of challenges, both thematic and logistical. Much of the plot centers around the main character’s communication limitations, defying the usual notion of what it means to play a starring role.
“It’s breaking all the stereotypes a lot of people put on plays, that you have to have the most lines to be the main part of it, and that the people with the least lines – they’re just the background,” said eighth grader Amber Hebberd, blocking stage manager. “This time, the person with the least lines is the main character.”
Gillian Schuenemeyer, the eighth grader playing Keller, had to step into the mind of a girl who had never really known hearing or sight.
It was amazing, she said, to realize how much we rely on these two senses.
“I don’t think of it so much as a disability – it’s just a different way of life,” Schuenemeyer said.
Learning sign language was not a requirement, Gabardi said, but some students did it on their own, under the guidance of seventh-grader Spikey Jackson, who has experience with the language.
They have been practicing in the performing arts hall, although for the final show, they will head into the middle school gym. Right now, their rehearsal space is exploding with materials that collectively form a Victorian home, complete with water pump and candlesticks.
“All the little details that are in the set are what makes it feel like it’s a house,” said Joslynn Romine, a seventh-grader on the lights crew. She brought up the chipping in the writing desk. “Chipping can give it a character,” she said. “The little things that you see everywhere kind of gives the set some personality.”