Light through darkness

A new play about the life of Helen Keller presents some of the harsher aspects of her journey to communication, but the director says it is suitable for audiences as young as 12

The Miracle Worker521 (photo credit: Benny Gam Zu Letova)
The Miracle Worker521
(photo credit: Benny Gam Zu Letova)
The story of Helen Keller is one of the most moving, harrowing and ultimately inspiring around. Keller was born in 1880 to a well-to-do family in Alabama. All was well until she was 19 months old, when she contracted an illness that doctors at the time described as “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain.” In more modern medical parlance, that might be translated as scarlet fever or meningitis. Little Helen was not sick for long, but it left her deaf and blind.
The tale of the trials and tribulations endured by Keller and her family and the eventual road to a highly successful life and acclaim is well chronicled, as well as dramatized, on both screen and stage. Ziv Meir has added his directorial expertise to the Keller portrayal mix with his production of Osim Niflaot (The Miracle Worker), which will have its first showing at the Mediatheque Theater in Holon on April 13. The Israeli version of the play is based on William Gibson’s 1959 drama The Miracle Worker, which was turned into the 1962 Oscar Award-winning movie of the same name, starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke.
Meir makes no bones about the educational value he hopes his play will provide; Osim Niflaot is geared toward audiences age 12 and over. The play is not exactly a Disney-style romp through a merry happy-end story. The almost unbearably visceral tension and conflicts between Keller and her devoted but unflinching teacher Anne Sullivan are front and center in Osim Niflaot, but Meir says that teenagers can take it, and will leave the theater with the desired food for thought, as well as a song in their heart.
“Today’s youngsters are not like they were when I was that age,” says the 30something director. “Twelve-year-olds are a different lot these days.”
Meir already has a track record with the drama. “I directed the play at the Goodman Acting Studio in Beersheba last year, and [Mediatheque artistic director] Roni Pinkovitch came to see the show and decided to take it to the Mediatheque Theater,” says Meir. “By the way, we had children even younger than 12 who came to see the show in Beersheba, and they were spellbound by it. After the show, they wanted to meet ‘Helen’ and check whether she could see or really was blind. Genia was wonderful in the role, and she is really the reason why Roni took the play to Holon.”
The “Genia” in question is actress Evgenia Hilzenrat. The rest of the Holon cast includes Noa Biron, Tamar Stein, Magi Azarzar, Eldad Brentman and David Levinsky. The Gibson script was adapted by Anat Bronovski.
Although it feeds off the Beersheba production, the Mediatheque version is a different kettle of fish.
“In Beersheba, I worked with acting students, and that is very different from working with established, experienced professionals,” notes Meir.
“Genia is the only member of the Beersheba cast in this production. In a way, it was easier to work with the students in Beersheba because I could mold them the way I wanted, but you can’t do that so easily with experienced actors. But I get so much from the members of this cast. I am not the kind of director who lays down the law; I like to work with the actors and get ideas from them, too.
It’s great fun seeing how things evolve.”
MEIR SAYS he was totally enraptured with Gibson’s play when he read it and immediately knew he wanted to put on his own Hebrew version.
He was also sensitive to the intense emotive content of the story.
“There are some very difficult moments in the play,” he notes. “Annie [Sullivan] was a very hard taskmaster and very uncompromising. She told Helen’s parents that the thing that was stopping their daughter from progressing was their love and their sympathy, and that she wasn’t going to have that.”
Sullivan subsequently took Helen off to a pavilion in the Kellers’ sprawling estate and spent two weeks there holed up with her young, unseeing, unhearing and often febrile ward, and prohibited the young girl’s parents from communicating with her.
Sullivan’s unstinting efforts eventually bore fruit, and Keller became a world-famous author, political activist and speaker.
“The amazing thing is that Sullivan was only a young woman herself, 20 years old, had no experience as a teacher and didn’t have any means of communicating with Helen to begin with,” says Meir. “Annie had a very tough childhood and was severely visually impaired herself. Maybe that made her so tough and able to deal with Helen’s anger and frustration and violent behavior. The main thing that drove her in her own life was not to pity herself, despite her terrible childhood. And she was uncompromising with Helen, too.”
That, naturally, spawns high drama in the portrayal of the story.
“It is fascinating to follow the clashes between two headstrong characters who give no quarter and to see how their relationship develops,” says the director.
And there are other dynamics that come into play in the evolving drama.
“The mother is torn between her love for her daughter and letting Annie get on with it,” Meir continues. “Helen’s father was an army captain, and he is a tough character himself, so sparks fly between him and Annie. Meanwhile, Helen’s mother doesn’t want to challenge her husband, but Annie represents her last hope for helping her daughter.”
It is not all doom and gloom and clashes of wills in Osim Niflaot. There are some comedic moments in the play, too – not dark humor according to Meir. The director says he hopes the members of the audience, teenagers and adults alike, will take plenty away with them from the show.
“My attitude towards people I see in the street with disabilities has changed since I started work on the play,” Meir notes. “I wouldn’t say I actually pitied them before, but I have more respect for them today and can appreciate that they can have a rich life, despite their physical condition.
Through the play we discover how, through studying, patience, persistence and willpower, people can achieve things that may seem impossible.
I hope that getting a glimpse of the world of Helen Keller will give hope to people who live in darkness and are looking for the light.”
Osim Niflaot will be performed at the Mediatheque Theater in Holon on April 1, at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. For tickets and more information: (03) 502-1552 and