Chicago Theatre Review
The Story of Helen Keller & Anne Sullivan
A Light in the Dark – Chicago Childrens Theatre
Most adults are familiar with the story of these two heroic women, whose lives forever light up the darkness. The courage, intelligence, devotion and love that these two remarkable women shared are like a beacon in the night. “The Miracle Worker,” the source for this piece, is a riveting two-hour work of art that never fails to inspire. Adapted by William Gibson from Ms. Keller’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, this dramatic version tells how a young, sight-impaired teacher, inspired and taught and tamed a frustrated, blind-deaf child at the turn of the last century.
Thodos Dance of Chicago has created a 45-minute version of the exhilarating story through dance and drama. Co-choreographed by Artistic Director Melissa Thodos and renowned Broadway dancer/choreographer Ann Reinking, this production is the perfect length to capture and hold the attention of school-age children. The story both entertains while it teaches, introducing young audiences to two real life, extraordinary Americans.
The piece premiered at Chicago’s Harris Theater for Music and Dance in 2012. It then toured nationally, to great acclaim, returning once again to Chicago the following year. This collaboration with Chicago Children’s Theatre is a perfect match. It offers an opportunity for both companies to introduce children to these two remarkable, admirable women from history, while opening up a discussion about physical disabilities. At select performances, the theatre offers ASL interpretation and open captioning for hearing impaired audiences, as well as a pre-show touch tour of the set, props and costumes for children who are blind or with low vision. They also offer interactive performances and talkbacks with the cast. In short, this production is accessible to everyone and it shouldn’t be missed.
As moving as the actual lives of Helen and Anne, this storytelling dance begins with Anne Sullivan’s childhood, where she grew up as a “damaged child” in an asylum. Abandoned by her parents, Anne becomes nurturing and empathetic to those less fortunate. She cares for and protects her frail younger brother, Jimmie, and his memory lives within Anne all her life. Next we’re introduced to Helen, an uncivilized deaf-blind child, merely tolerated and indulged by her wealthy parents. Soon, however, it’s clear to the Kellers that Helen needs to be educated in order to safely function in the outside world.
We meet Anne once again as a student at a school for the blind. To the young woman’s surprise, she’s asked to travel to Alabama to teach a young deaf-blind girl how to communicate. But Anne’s relationship with Helen becomes much deeper than that of a mere teacher/student. She comes to care for Helen as she did with her brother, and, in Anne, Helen finds a caring friend. The story continues from their first meeting and the gift of a doll with eyes, to the beginnings of Helen’s instruction in the sign language alphabet. A traumatic dinner table scene follows and, eventually, Anne is given permission to take her charge to a cottage on the outskirts of the Keller property. There Anne can immerse Helen in her instruction, unfettered by her mother’s coddling and appeasement.
In time, Anne returns Helen to her family where she eventually reverts back to her unacceptable behavior. After Helen angrily throws a water pitcher, Anne drags her student from the dinner table outside to the pump. While making her refill the pitcher, Anne continually instructs Helen in the ASL-spelled word for water…and suddenly a light ignites in darkness. At last Helen understands that all those funny finger games are letters that form words, and those words represent the elements of her world.
Magnificently adapted, directed and choreographed, this production is an impressive, emotionally-charged, compassionate condensation of the original play and film. The young cast features an array of excellently trained dancers who tell Gibson’s story through graceful, modern movement and facial expression. Abby Ellison and Jessica Miller Tomlinson share a special connection as Anne and Helen. Their performances, along with Hattie Haggard and John Cartwright, as Helen’s mother and brother, are the highlights of this production. Alex Gordon and Thomas Jacobson also shine as Captain Keller and Jimmie Sullivan, as do the entire ensemble, playing the Maid and the students at Perkins School for the Blind. The production is set to a musical score by Bruce Wolosoff, with lighting by Nathan Tomlinson and beautiful period costumes designed by Nathan Rohrer.
Once again Chicago Children’s Theatre sparkles with a production of perfection. This show for young audiences tells the story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan through movement and dance. It’s a profoundly sincere and often heartbreaking tale that addresses some of the challenges individuals with disabilities must face, while also celebrating the lives of two smart, vibrant American women. For young audiences unfamiliar with Helen and Anne, this production will not only open up conversations about seeing and hearing impairment, it’ll expose them to two heroic women they may not have known before. And the success of this loving, not-to-be-missed production can be seen and heard in the enthusiastic applause that ends each performance.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 15-23 by Chicago Children’s Theatre, in collaboration with Thodos Dance Chicago at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 872-222-9555 or by going to www.chicagochildrenstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.