The term, "miracle worker," was coined by Mark Twain in reference to Anne Sullivan's work with Helen Keller. Twain even helped fund Keller's Radcliffe College education, where she became the first blind and deaf person to receive a bachelor's degree.
When it comes to triumph of spirit, it doesn't get any more inspirational than Keller's life story, beautifully crafted from her autobiographical account in William Gibson's, "The Miracle Worker." First presented as a televised Playhouse 90 production in 1957, it was adapted for Broadway and then into the Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke film version, with which most of us are familiar.
Keller not only lived to experience the popularity of these productions but was also invited to the White House by every U.S. president, from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Johnson. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she played a major role in generating federal funding to help alleviate obstacles facing the blind, deaf and mute.
Pua Kepler (left) plays Helen Keller and Jessica Chernicki is Anne Sullivan
JACK GRACE photo
Directing Keller's story locally is Rick Scheideman. The West Maui resident's numerous credits range from actor, writer, jazz and classical musician, and director. Scheideman also tours five one-man productions; and since relocating to Maui, has performed as Mark Twain, Albert Einstein and C.S. Lewis.
"Alternating between acting and directing is refreshing," Scheideman said. "Acting is more solitary; directing is broader. There's less pressure in some ways, but more in another."
Twenty years ago, Scheideman acted opposite his real-life daughter, who played Helen. "There's a personal connection there. My concept for the show is a journey," he shared. "It's not just about Helen, the goal is the audience participates in their own journey - we're all blind, deaf and speechless in some way."
For a woman who could not see or hear, Keller is one of the most quoted individuals in history. A few of her powerful thoughts include: "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart;" "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much;" "The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision;" and on the subject of Christianity, "I always knew he was there, I just didn't know his name."
Helen was born with the ability to see and hear, but at 19 months, she contracted an undiagnosed illness (which may have been scarlet fever or meningitis), leaving her both deaf and blind. An extremely bright child, she was able to communicate somewhat with self-created signs and motions. The neglected child, played by Pua Kepler, was raised like a wild animal. At a loss to connect with their daughter, the Kellers enlisted the half-blind, youthful and inexperienced Anne Sullivan (Jessica Chernicki).
Upon Sullivan's arrival in the spring of 1887, she began to teach Helen formal sign language, starting with the word, "doll," which she had brought her as a present.
Scheideman describes Kepler as "a delight to work with. It's a journey for her, too, and a big challenge. She's very sweet, and we're taught to behave, but her role requires her to be out of control and misbehave."
I asked the 12-year-old actress about her leading role. "She's pretty wild, but she's also smart," said Kepler. "She's hard to portray because she's very stubborn, very spoiled and just given whatever she wanted - she's just an animal."
She also discussed playing blind, deaf and speechless. "It's hard, because I can see. I don't want to run into walls, but Helen would; it's hard to pretend that. You have to use your face and body a lot more." I asked about Helen's journey: "Anne is stubborn, too, so we have these brawls. It's really fun to play that, but she (Helen) slowly progresses throughout the show. Bit by bit, she gets more reserved, it's not like she goes from wild child to nice, clean, little girl without a fight."
Pua is the daughter of King Kekaulike High School drama instructor, Chris Kepler, and granddaughter of Maui Choral Arts Association tenor, Bill Kepler.
Anne remained Helen's companion for the next 49 years, and at Anne's death bed, Helen stayed by her side, holding her hand. On this friendship, Keller remarked: "Once I knew only darkness and stillness . . . my life was without past or future . . . but a little word from the fingers of another fell into my hand that clutched at emptiness, and my heart leaped to the rapture of living."
* Maui OnStage presents "The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson and directed by Rick Scheideman. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays, opening this week and continuing through May 25 at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku. No performance May 17. Tickets are $17 to $28. Call 242-6969 or visit www.mauionstage.com.
ALSO THIS WEEK
* Don't miss the final weekend of "God of Carnage" by Yasmina Reza, directed by Jonathan Lehman. This award-worthy Maui production, starring Kisha Milling, Jennifer Rose, Don Carlson and Will Makozak, plays at 7:30 tonight, Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sundays at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Tickets are $22; kamaaina discount available for Hawaii residents tonight. Contains strong adult language. Call 463-6550 for details.
* Kihei Charter High School Drama presents an original comedic opera, "The Three Musketeers," co-directed by Vicki and Roxi Nelson, at 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Kihei Charter High School, 300 Ohukai St., Kihei. Tickets are $5 per person, available at the door.
* Enjoy a staged reading of "Picasso at the Lapin Agile" by Steve Martin. What if a young artist and scientist happed to meet in the early 1900s? Picasso (Jeff Brackett) talks abstract art, and Einstein (Ricky Jones) shares relativity. The one-night-only ONO! performance is at 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Historic Iao Theater in Wailuku.
* Maui Improv will be offering four new classes with acclaimed improv instructor and performer, David Razowsky. Razowsky served as artistic director of Second City-Los Angeles, co-founded The Annoyance Theatre of Chicago and has worked with Steve Carell, Steven Colbert, Jeff Garlin and Amy Sedaris. Classes are 6:30 p.m. May 19 to 22 at the ProArts Playhouse in Kihei. Space is limited; pre-enrollment is suggested. Current Maui Improv students will also be offering a free showcase at 7 p.m. Sunday, with a special improv performance by instructors Louis Kornfeld and Mike Burton, at ProArts. For information, visit www.mauiimprov.com.