When Bonnie Grice read Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” in elementary school she instantly connected with the deaf, blind activist’s story and historical impact. She said she would never forget the iconic image on the book’s cover: Patty Duke as Keller in the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker,” which also starred Anne Bancroft as Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan. Now Ms. Grice is at the helm of a theatrical production of “The Miracle Worker,” the play by William Gibson that was adapted into that film. Public performances will be held at the Southampton Cultural Center over the weekend of April 27 to 29, and additional performances will be staged for East End schools.
The production is presented by Ms. Grice’s theater company, Boots on the Ground, which was founded in 2016. Since its formation, Boots on the Ground has produced events ranging from a one-man show starring Ed German—Ms. Grice’s fellow WPPB Southampton public radio personality—for JDT Lab at Guild Hall, to Victorian funeral reenactments in partnership with the Southampton Historical Museum.
Speaking with The Press in the midst of preparations for the company’s latest production, Ms. Grice said each of the events has one common thread: history. This is especially true in the case of “The Miracle Worker,” she emphasized.
“I love the fact that it is historical,” she said of the play. “This is what happened to Helen Keller when Annie Sullivan came into her life. She changed her world and changed our world.”
The production was in the back of her mind for a year before she reached out to local director and friend Joan Lyons with the proposal to stage the play. She said she could not think of a better person to bring Keller’s story to life on stage.
“Joan is brilliant as a director and she’s coming into her own as a director of serious theater,” Ms. Grice said.
Most recently, Ms. Lyons directed a well-received production of “Crimes of the Heart” for Southampton Cultural Center’s Center Stage.
“She’s had her own theater company before and she’s a dancer and a choreographer and actor, but in the last couple of years at the cultural center she’s really been honing this craft of hers,” Ms. Grice said.
However, the process of putting the show together has not been without its challenges, Ms. Lyons admitted. She and Ms. Grice were faced with the task of condensing the two-and-a-half-hour, three-act play to just under 70 minutes in order to present it to local schools. They also faced the challenge of bringing together a cast of local actors for cohesive rehearsals.
“I don’t like to call this community theater because that term seems to get a bad rap, but it’s theater by our community,” Ms. Lyons explained. “All these people are not paid actors—they do their day jobs and then they come to rehearsal after. But people have children and they get sick and they travel. It’s really challenging. The larger your cast is, the harder it is to get everyone together at once. We work around who’s not there and we work on things we can get some mileage out of.”
Despite these scheduling challenges, Ms. Lyons said th e group recently turned a huge corner.
“You start running the whole show or running act one or running act two and act three and you can kind of see how the flow goes and see where the story starts and where it ends up,” she said.
With the show set to debut in just over a week, Ms. Lyons said the cast and crew are getting to where they need to be: “It’s not just the magic of theater; these things come together because of hard work.”
However, both Ms. Grice and Ms. Lyons agreed that much of the production’s success depends on the two leads—young Helen Keller and her dedicated teacher Annie Sullivan.
In December, the production team held extensive auditions to find just the right duo.
“You can’t really cast one without the other,” Ms. Lyons said. “You really have to have both because it’s really such a close, tight-knit relationship. And if the chemistry isn’t there and it doesn’t gel, that’s 90 percent of your show.”
Fortunately, the team said they were able to cast two talented actresses in the roles—10-year-old Emma Suhr and Actor’s Studio Drama School alumna Tina Marie Realmuto.
Ms. Lyons said the production team was drawn to Emma since her first audition.
“Every time I gave her something, she just took it and she took it further than I asked her to. She was walking around the set as a blind, deaf child and she was just touching things in a way that I thought, ‘That’s the way a blind child touching something would look,’” she said.
“She’s a deaf, blind child who can’t communicate with the outside world,” Ms. Lyons continued. “So her world is sense of smell, sense of taste, sense of feeling, surfaces, vibrations—and she was really using all those senses during her audition. I thought, ‘This kid’s got something.’”
Meanwhile, Ms. Lyons had previously worked with Ms. Realmuto while directing “Crimes of the Heart,” in which the actress played Babe.
“Having just worked with Tina, I knew her style,” Ms. Lyons said. “She has a look that is very Annie-like. She’s a very soft person. She’s a very likable person. And I thought that’s what I want to see in Annie. Annie would be a people lover and Tina is definitely a people lover. It just came across.”
And together on stage, the two truly express the intensity of the relationship between Helen and Annie, Ms. Lyons said.
Ultimately, Ms. Grice hopes that audiences can take away a clear message from the retelling of a “historical miracle”—the idea that people facing adversity can overcome their limitations.
And moving forward with Boots on the Ground, Ms. Grice said she wants to continue “making theater that’s relevant and historic at the same time.”
“I think it’s so important for us to know our past—to learn from it,” she said.
“The Miracle Worker” will be staged at the Southampton Cultural Center, 25 Pond Lane, Southampton Village, from April 27 to 29 with performances on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. To purchase tickets, $20 for general admission and $5 for children 12 years and under, visit scc-arts.org or call OvationTix at 1-866-811-4111.
One fine body…