Inspiring stories need to be told and retold, keeping them alive to motivate generation after generation.
Bringing inspiring stories to Modesto audiences is one of the goals for Gallo Repertory Theater, while also making them entertaining.
Add in a dog and you’ve got a real audience pleaser; more on that later.
The lofty past production list for Gallo Rep includes “Inherit the Wind” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Next up for the Gallo Center for the Arts resident company is the touching true story of deaf and blind Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan in “The Miracle Worker.” Gallo Rep offers three public performances Nov. 3-5.
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“I think that a really quality production should be done every 10 years or so, so that young people continue to be inspired by it,” said Jim Johnson, artistic director for Gallo Rep and producer of the upcoming play. To that end, the company makes a special point of opening its productions to schools for field trips to the downtown venue.
“The Miracle Worker” fits perfectly into that mission, with its “timeless story,” he said.
“It’s inspiring,” agreed Heike Hambley, directing the production for Gallo Rep. “When you work on a play, you find out so many more things about a particular subject ... some of my favorite quotes are from Helen Keller. (She’s) a person that you would like to know, you would like to get to know.”
Keller, was born with the ability to see and hear in 1880 but became deaf and blind at the age of 19 months after an illness. Five years later, a teacher for the blind was hired by the Keller family, Annie Sullivan helped the child overcome her physical difficulties and ultimately become a social activist, humanitarian and educator. The two never separated and their ashes are interred together at Washington National Cathedral.
Their early story is told in “The Miracle Worker,” written in 1959 by playwright William Gibson and brought to life by Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke as Sullivan and Keller, respectively. The actresses reprised their roles in a film by the same name in 1962. The play won Tony Awards for Gibson, Bancroft and director Arthur Penn; the film garnered acting awards for Bancroft and Duke.
Trapped in her silent world and unable to communicate, Keller was a violent, spoiled child whose family was unable to cope with the girl before bringing in Sullivan, who realized there was “a mind and spirit waiting to be rescued from the tortured silence,” according to information from the Gallo Center.
Scenes between the teacher and her student – played by Melissa Dawn and 12-year-old Jade Seymour – are intense, physically as well as emotionally, but there’s also great joy in the play, Hambley said. It’s also profoundly touching.
“The Miracle Worker” shows just part of her childhood when she’s just woken up to life, to thinking, to connecting with that one teacher, and so often we think, ‘Oh, miracle worker, the miracle, that’s Helen Keller,’ but the miracle worker is the teacher who didn’t give up,” Hambley said.
“Besides that,” she added, “it’s just a fantastic play.”
And if inspiration and quality weren’t enough to attract audiences, the cast of the live production includes a dog.
“It’s a cast of 11 – and one dog,” Hambley said. “I know that everybody will watch the dog for three scenes.”
That dog, Willow, is a bit of a veteran on the Gallo Center stage. Johnson worked with the canine on “A Christmas Story,” the first solo production for the Gallo Center in 2014. The same local trainer, Tammie Cohen out of Top Notch Kennels in Modesto, now is guiding Willow as the family dog in “The Miracle Worker.”
Willow is integral in one of the play’s most touching scenes, Hambley said. “There’s one scene when Helen just starts to understand there’s something about this finger spelling, and she tries to teach the dog a word in her paw.”
Among those who no doubt will enjoy seeing Willow perform are the schoolchildren who traditionally flock to the Gallo Rep performances.
It’s a teaching opportunity, Johnson said, for educators and for parents. “What a great opportunity you can have to engage with your kids about people with disabilities and how far we’ve come,” he said. “(Keller) was a pioneer who helped bring this out.”
According to History.com, Keller learned to read and write in Braille from Sullivan and to use hand signals to communicate, which she could understand only by touch. With Sullivan repeating lectures into her hand, Keller studied at schools for the deaf in Boston and New York City and graduated cum laud in 1904 from Radcliffe College. Her accomplishments made her a celebrity and her impact as educator, organizer and fundraiser lead to advances in public services for the handicapped.
“It’s a story that should not be forgotten,” Hambley said. “What would have happened if that teacher had not been in her life?”
“The Miracle Worker”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Nov. 3-4; 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 5
WHERE: Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto