NYSTI takes new look at ‘old chestnut’

The New York State Theatre Institute takes what director John Romeo describes as “an old chestnut” a

The New York State Theatre Institute opens its season with “The Miracle Worker,” the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.

The production is based on William Gibson’s teleplay, written in 1957 and made into the Broadway play that opened in 1959. In 1962, it hit the big screen starring Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke as Keller. Both had been in the Broadway show.

“The Miracle Worker” marks NYSTI veteran John Romeo’s first time directing a full-length production. He previously directed a highly produced staged reading of “Inalienable Rights: Denied” at NYSTI.

NYSTI takes what Romeo describes as “an old chestnut” and brings a “new, invigorating look at the story,” employing modern technology. Instead of voiceovers for flashbacks, as called for in the original script, Romeo employs video projection.

‘The Miracle Worker’

WHERE: New York State Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, Russell Sage College, 5 Division St., Troy

WHEN: 8 p.m. on Saturdays Oct. 2 and 9; 2 p.m. on Sundays Oct. 3 and 10; 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 8; and 10 a.m. Oct. 1, 5-8, and 12-15

HOW MUCH: $22, Adult; $18 senior citizen and student; $12, child 12 and under.

MORE INFO: 274-3256 or www.nysti.org

In the midst of trying to help an out-of-control child locked in a silent and dark world, Sullivan, the daughter of poor, farming Irish immigrants, experiences her own memories of her youth, spent in the deplorable Tewksbury Almshouse in Massachusetts and later at the Perkins School for the Blind. Sullivan had lost her sight due to trachoma, but was able to regain some of it with a series of operations in her teens.

“We don’t have the money for a big, gigantic set,” said Romeo, noting that the set is spare. This will help to keep the audience focused on the acting.

The acting is a great physical challenge for the stars. Shannon Rafferty, who first appeared on NYSTI’s stage at age 11 in “The Little Princess” and later became an intern there, plays the part of Sullivan. Mohonasen School District eighth-grader Marina Macherone, who recently played Duffy in a national tour of “Annie,” plays Keller in her NYSTI debut.

Sullivan and Keller had epic battles when the teacher came to the girl’s Tuscumbria, Ala., home in 1887 to be Helen’s governess, so the show includes some stage combat scenes. Keller, used to being indulged by her family and allowed to do whatever she pleased, rebels against this new person who insists on certain behaviors. Rafferty said that she’s not much taller than Macherone, who is stronger than she looks, so the fight scenes are really physically challenging for her.

“It’s a good thing we get along,” Macherone said of her co-star.

Romeo expects that young audiences will enjoy the big food fight in the second act when Sullivan is teaching Keller to eat with a spoon off a plate. “It’s challenging and fun to watch, and I think the amount of effort they put into it certainly will be exciting,” he said.

The show is highly emotional. “Helen is blind and deaf, but inside, she’s so intelligent,” said Macherone, who only has one line in the show. But there is plenty of physical activity, including imitating Rafferty’s sign language, that makes up for the words.

“Annie treats her as though she did see and she expects her to see,” Rafferty said. “I think that’s eventually why she connects with her and gets through to her because she knows she has an inside,” she said.

Sullivan works stubbornly and relentlessly to break through to her student, and the audience gets to witness when she finally is able to get Keller to make a connection between the words she is spelling into her hand and actual things during the famous water pump scene.

Recent budget cutbacks for the institute have been a major challenge during this production, Romeo said. Many of the actors are volunteers, which creates a major “scheduling juggling act.”

Romeo applauds those working on the production for being able to produce a “high-class professional show,” with such a small budget. NYSTI has designed the show entirely in-house, with NYSTI staff doing the set, costumes and lighting.

“We’re tapping into all the resources that NYSTI already has, using every ounce of body, of time and effort that we have available to us without spending much money to make the show come up,” Romeo said. “Everybody has banded together to make this show work.”

He makes an analogy between Sullivan’s work with Keller and the work of NYSTI. “What Annie does is bring education to this girl, turning a light on. We turn the light on for some kids who can’t find the switch through regular educational venues,” he said.

He also hopes that educators who come to see the show will come to understand how theater can be a teaching tool and not solely for entertainment.

Categories: Life and Arts

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