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The story of Helen Keller comes to Clarksville stage
SoVaNow.com / February 26, 2014
Rehearsals are well underway for the Clarksville Community Players’ upcoming production of “The Miracle Worker,” based on the true-life story of Helen Keller. As an infant, illness rendered Helen Keller blind, deaf, and consequently mute and as a young child Helen Keller was in danger of being sent to an institution because her inability to communicate left her frustrated and violent. In sheer desperation, Helen’s parents sought help from the Perkins Institute for the Blind and a young schoolgirl named Annie Sullivan arrived to tutor their daughter. “The Miracle Worker,” a play by William Gibson, tells this dramatic and compelling story, and once again brings an array of talent to the Clarksville stage.
When director Diana Pate held open auditions for this particular show, she carefully considered the ages both Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan would have been at the time. In the play, Helen is six years old. If possible, it was extremely important for Pate to cast a child who was also six years old. It is worth noting that Patty Duke, who initially made this role famous, was 12 years old when she first played Helen Keller in the 1959 Broadway play. Duke was 15 in the 1962 film version and almost didn’t get the part because she looked too old to play a six or seven year old child.
In CCP’s rendition, audiences are in for a special treat as Pate felt extremely confident in her selection for this important principal character. Six-year-old Helen Keller is being portrayed by Hallie Caldwell of Buffalo Junction, also six. Hallie is in the first grade, home-schooled, and the youngest of four children. Besides acting on-stage, Hallie loves to read and she loves animals. While this is Hallie’s first major role with CCP, she did sneak in a small cameo appearance during CCP’s 2013 spring musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis” where Hallie’s mother, Loria, played “Katie,” and big sister Evelyn played “Tootie.” For one show, Hallie dressed up, twirled a parasol and got to sit on the trolley during the Trolley Song.
When asked how challenging the role of Helen has been for six-year-old Hallie and what preparation at home goes into preparing for such a role, mother Loria explained Hallie’s usual temperament is a far cry from what would have been expected of six-year-old Helen. She says she literally had to get in the floor and demonstrate how to pitch a temper tantrum. She added, “Hallie takes direction very well and now I think she loves to throw a fit!” At first, the director had Hallie practice with a blindfold so she could better understand what it felt like to be frustrated and not be able to see where she was going on-stage. After awhile, the blindfold was removed and now Hallie continues to practice on not being able to see, and follow along with her eyes, what’s really going on in the scene.
23-year-old Carla Carden, who is playing Helen’s 22-year-old teacher Annie Sullivan, says that working with Hallie “is amazing.” Carden lives in Chase City but is no stranger to the Clarksville stage. Carla has been seen in multiple past CCP productions including “Fiddler on the Roof,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Best Christmas Pageant Ever” and “Steel Magnolias” (2004). Her favorite role ever was Lucy in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” (2011). Carla is also no stranger to working with young children as she loves her job as a member of the “afternoon staff” at the Clarksville Baptist Preschool. Carla says she auditioned for Annie Sullivan “because I love the Helen Keller story,” and “when I was really little I learned the sign language alphabet.”
There are multiple heartfelt cast connections to the deaf and hearing impaired hard at work behind the scenes in this production as well.
Assistant director Zachary Glasscock has studied sign language since he was 12 and is currently working toward his two-year degree in Education at SVCC. He has worked one-on-one with Hallie and Carla as well as other members of the cast. Though he probably first started signing years ago by asking questions of his mom, Georgene, who has worked for years with speech therapy and special education students, he says he enrolled in his first American Sign Language course last fall.
Zachary explains an unspoken rule is that no hearing person can give you a deaf person’s name, so in the class one of the first things you have to do is decide what your name is in sign language. For Zachary, he makes a “Z,” starting on his heart, ending on his sleeve, “because I wear my heart of my sleeve.” Zachary admits that as a child, “I had no idea there was such a thing as schools for the deaf” until he was watching an episode of the TV series Cold Case (“Andy in C Minor”) which was about a deaf child attending a deaf school, who the investigators went to interview. He adds it is important to note that educational institutes for the blind and deaf today are much, much different than they were during Helen Keller’s time, as back then (the 1880s) the term institute was nearly always synonymous with asylum.
Renee Booths of Clarksville, head costumer for the show, studied textiles at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York. She explains the RIT campus is nearby the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. While she was doing costumes at RIT a large part of her college work-study experience involved explaining how to fit costumes to deaf and hearing impaired persons. She admits much of that work was challenging though such a truly rewarding and unparalleled experience. At the time, she had never previously met a deaf person and remembers being particularly fascinated at how anyone could take almost any class they wanted as there were hearing interpreters in almost all of her classes and at almost all of the events held on campus when she was there.
While her own daughter Regan is now away at college, and missing the CCP stage this spring, Renee is happy to be assisting behind the scenes at CCP, especially on this particular show.
A community event not to be missed, “The Miracle Worker” will run for one weekend only at the Clarksville Fine Arts Center. Show dates are Friday and Saturday, March 14-15 at 7:30 p.m. A Sunday matinee will be March 16 at 3 p.m. The box office opens on March 3 and box office hours are Monday-Friday, noon-6 p.m. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. For more information call (434) 374-0058.