The emotional story of blind, deaf, and speechless Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan, opened last weekend, bringing the painfully honest and inspirational story to life at the Golden Chain Theatre.
The play, that was also an Academy Award winning film, is based on Keller's 1902 autobiography "The Story of My Life," written by William Gibson
Keller, blind and deaf since infancy, is a frustrated young girl, subject to frequent violent outbursts. Although her parents loved her, they were helpless when it came to dealing with and educating the young girl. The parents, Captain Keller (Peter Clarke) and Kate Keller (Sarah Persson), seek help from the Perkins School for the Blind, and soon tutor Sullivan, a strong-willed 26-year-old graduate of the school, arrives at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Ala. in March, 1887.
Sullivan and Keller quickly engage in a battle of wills as Sullivan attempts to break down Helen's life of darkness through determination and persistence.
Sullivan had a strong-willed personality after losing her mother at an early age and being abandoned by her abusive father. She had a quick temper herself, and some of the scenes with Keller, impressively played by 13-year-old Amber Persson, are very physical and intensely emotional.
The demanding role of Keller's teacher, Annie Sullivan, was powerfully played by veteran Golden Chain actress Tawni Jackson, 22, who called the role amazing, invigorating, and inspirational.
"The writing was phenomenal, and the character I play (Sullivan) is now one of my role models," Jackson said. "She was such an incredible woman."
Jackson said playing Sullivan is hands down the most difficult role she has ever had in her 11 year acting career.
"It has been physically and emotionally exhausting," Jackson said after last Sunday's performance. "Annie is very different than me in real life, so it has been a struggle at times getting her character just right. Jason (director Jason Turner) has had to push me farther than I have ever gone before as an actress both physically and mentally."
Jackson said she actually had emotional breakdowns, fits of rage, and moments of self doubt during rehearsals.
A couple scenes in the play are very physical between Jackson and 13-year-old Amber Persson, who played Helen Keller.
"Amber and I were walking around covered in cuts and bruises, and sore muscles on my end," Jackson said.
Thanks to Sullivan, Keller learned nearly 600 words and how to read Braille. Sullivan died on Oct. 20, 1936, after a nearly 50-year relationship with Keller, who was the first blind-deaf person to graduate from college in America.
Jackson said she was pulling her hair out and feeling she should hang up her acting hat and call it a day after this show, but then something magical happened.
"We had a family and friends night our last night of rehearsal where we invite friends and relatives to be our audience," Jackson explained. "We had flub ups here and there and were beating ourselves up about them backstage as all actors do, but we got through the play. When we got to the last scene, which is very emotional and one of the best scenes I've ever done, I could here the audience crying. At that moment I fell in love with acting all over again."
Jackson said that every bruise, moment of frustration, and grey hair she now has was worth it.
"That feeling when you have just been a part of moving an entire audience to tears is like nothing else in the world," Jackson said. "Not only has this play given me an amazing role model, but it has given me back my passion for acting, which I had thought was lost."
Jackson said she has recently decided to step back from being as involved as she has been in the Golden Chain in order to expand her performance portfolio.
"I could not be more thrilled that this is the high note I'm leaving on," Jackson said. "It's such an amazing, heartwarming story and the role of a life time. This play has been a gift. I'm so grateful that the audiences have allowed me to share this amazing story with them. I just wish this show was running longer so more people could see it and I could have a chance to be Annie for a few more hours.
NOTE: "The Miracle Worker" will be performed at the Golden Chain Theatre at 7 p.m., April 11, 12, 18, and 19, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, April 13. Reservations: (559) 683-7112, firstname.lastname@example.org.