Half a century later, the work still holds up as a powerful, inspiring theatrical work, especially in the capable hands of director Greg Alexander and his talented cast.
The success of this work depends on the actors who play the young Helen Keller, and her would-be teacher, Annie Sullivan.
Courtney Shannon, a ninth-grader at Natomas Charter’s Performing and Fine Arts Academy, has been acting in musicals for several years, but this is her first foray into dramatic acting (she alternates with Bella Bagatelos as Helen). She is 95 percent convincing as the blind/deaf girl (there were a few moments when she obviously “saw” what she was approaching — a step in one case, and her brother’s outstretched hand in another), but overall she did an outstanding job.
The intense battle scenes between Helen and Annie Sullivan, as the latter attempts to teach Helen manners and try to get her to understand the concept of “words,” were wonderful and must have left both actresses exhausted. The audience is taken on such a roller coaster of emotions that when Helen finally “gets it,” there was a lot of sniffling and wiping of eyes in the audience.
Sullivan’s character is in the more-than-capable hands of Brittni Barger. Though director Alexander has eschewed the usual Irish brogue, it is not necessary to get into the soul of Annie, and Barger is full of spunk and fire and, despite her inexperience, is willing to fight for her pupil. She is passionate about giving Helen every chance to fulfill her potential, despite her handicaps.
(I once had a friend who was blind and deaf and who insisted she was not “disabled,” but merely “handicapped.”)
Shannon and Barger are backed by an excellent cast. Gary Wright is a very strong Captain Keller, a role that does not often stand out, but in Wright’s case does. He loves his daughter, but, along with the rest of the family, makes too many allowances for her bad behavior, which undermines Annie’s work with the child.
Michele Hillen is Helen’s mother, who desperately wants to know how to communicate with her daughter, but who also finds it difficult to be strict with her.
Griffith Munn (who alternates with Garrick Sigl) is surprisingly strong as the wise-cracking brother, James Keller, afraid of his father, not willing to accept his stepmother, and the only person in the family who sees that Annie’s approach to the girl is vital to her progress.
Others in the cast include Jeffrey Lloyd Heatherly in the dual role of the Doctor and Anagnos, the man who sends Annie to the Keller family; Georgann Wallace as Aunt Ev; and Tahlema Martin at the Kellers’ cook, Viney. Jordan Taylor and Jacob Navas played blind children Martha and Percy. They alternate in their roles with Carenna Thompson and Rion Romero.
The scenic design of Jarrod Bodensteiner is a multi-level set that includes an upstairs bedroom for Annie, the downstairs family dining room, the outside area that doubles as the cottage where Annie works alone with Helen for two weeks and the water pump area, which is vital to the closing scene.
Annie Sullivan went on to live with Helen Keller until Annie’s death in 1936. Helen’s list of accomplishments as an author, lecturer (she eventually learned how to speak) and political activist is impressive. She was one of the founders of the ACLU, and campaigned for women’s suffrage, labor rights and birth control. She died in 1968 and was inducted into the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 1971.
One wonders what might have happened to that blind, deaf, out-of-control little girl if there had not been an Annie Sullivan in her life.