BWW Interview: Chatting with the Seven Helen Kellers of THREE DAYS TO SEE
The scenes are familiar: Anne Sullivan dragging blind, deaf Helen Keller to the water pump, thrusting her hand under the stream, linking it to the letters spelled out in her palm. Anne trying to tame Helen's unruly breakfast habits, scrambled eggs flying like shrapnel, finally breaking through her defiance.
While THE MIRACLE WORKER cast Anne Bancroft as Anne and Patty Duke as Helen, first on Broadway and then in the 1962 movie (they both won Academy Awards), Three Days to See offers a rainbow assortment of Helen Kellers, seven in all: an Asian man, a black woman, a tall white man, a 13-year-old girl, a 60-year-old woman.
An Off Broadway production of the Transport Group Theatre Company, THREE DAYS TO SEE animates Hellen Keller through her own extensive writings. Except for an introduction, every word of the play, conceived and directed by Jack Cummings III, comes from Helen's own work.
Barbara Walsh, who is one of the seven Helens and also plays Anne during the chaotic and powerful breakfast scene, had no clue Helen was a prolific writer. "I felt that the play was going to be a magical theatrical experience and highly illuminating, "about an iconic American figure who most people don't know many things about," said Walsh, who is married to Cummings.
"It makes her more of a real person. The fact that she was impaired and limited is inspiring to think about how she lived her life," she said. Helen had a normal childhood until the age of 18 months, when she was stricken by what was then called brain fever. According to her mother, she spoke when she was 6 months old and walked by age 1. But her world was one of darkness and silence until Sullivan became her teacher and soulmate. Their relationship spanned 49 years, until Sullivan's death in 1936. Keller died in 1968 at age 87.
The play is performed on a bare stage with long tables that are moved to augment the dialogue. Actors' movements are choreographed with music that includes classical, jazz, movie scores, Yiddish, Swing and Broadway musicals.
"This play is important because it illuminates the person Helen Keller was and gives the audience an eye into her character, including flaws and range of personality," Walsh said.
"I think for an audience to get a personal look inside this woman is captivating," she said. This powerful interpretation of Keller's lifetime of achievement is refreshingly honest, Walsh said. "Potentially this subject matter could be preachy-'Live your life to the fullest because you can see'-but it's so much more than that and life-affirming through her own words and sense of language. Her point of view as a human being on this earth I don't find to be sentimental. I found it profound, how she viewed the world," Walsh said. "The audience seems to be completely riveted by the play, which is not your typical theatrical experience," she said.
"All the dialogue is her voice and we have seven different actors playing Helen at any given moment," Walsh said. (Thirteen-year-old Zoe Wilson is captivating.) "It's a beautiful thing to have different people speaking her words. I think we erase the stereotype of her, we throw that away. She's a human being and in the passages we act, it's universal. The collaboration is superb and wonderful."
Much of Keller's life will come as a surprise to many, Walsh said. "She almost got married and we portray what happens to Helen during the course of the relationship. I never knew about that and there's a beautiful passage that illustrates what that was like." Keller was the first blind and deaf person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree and she graduated from Radcliffe College in 1904. She wrote 12 books, including an autobiography, "The Story of my Life." She authored numerous articles on social issues including women's rights and visited 39 countries and five continents.
Another part of the 150-minute play (with no intermission) reveals how awkward Keller felt in social situations. "She tried to engage in conversation using hand signals in the palm," Walsh said, "and it was often very frustrating for her."
Once Helen mastered Braille, she devoured books, Walsh said. One of her favorites was "Gone With the Wind." "We talk about books and the importance of them in her life. Her writing skills are astonishing. She was also very wry and witty. I didn't know she went into vaudeville when Annie was struggling to pay bills."
"We want people to be surprised. It's really an unveiling of this person as she truly was and not with any kind of slant," Walsh said.
"Once she got ahold of Braille and could read in other languages, it is just unbelievable," she said. "She knew what was going on in this country and others. Her knowledge expanded in a profound way. Ignorance is not bliss. She clearly had this hunger for what the truth is in any given moment."
Keller also had friendships with celebrated figures of her time. "I didn't know about her friendships with Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin and Alexander Graham Bell," Walsh said. "It was incredibly important to her, these people she trusted and loved. Charlie Chaplin let her touch his face."
The play's title reflects on what Keller would choose to see if she had three days of sight. "On the first day I should want to see the people whose kindness and gentleness and companionship have made my life worth living," Keller wrote. "Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. Hear the music of an orchestra as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you."
THREE DAYS TO SEE is playing at the Transport Group Theatre Company, Theatre 79, 79 East 4th Street through August 16
Photo Credit: Jennifer Broski