It’s one of the greatest love stories ever told, but not in the way you’d think. By bringing William Gibson’s seminal play The Miracle Worker to the Southampton Cultural Center this weekend, Bonnie Grice, founder of Boots on the Ground Theater, has some pretty big high-buttoned shoes to fill.
But Grice, known as WPPB 88.3 FM’s “Eclectic Café” morning host, is up to the task, and has been for an uncommonly long time. “I had this premonition when I was 11 or 12 that I wanted to do this on stage,” she told The Independent. “I just knew this would happen.”
For those unfamiliar with what is surely one of America’s greatest works by one of its greatest playwrights, The Miracle Worker was derived from Helen Keller’s The Story of My Life, and recounts a few weeks one summer in 1887 at the Kellers’ Alabama home.
After losing her sight and hearing as a toddler and then spending years in darkness as an untethered wild child, Helen Keller was uncontrollable, living almost like an animal, until Annie Sullivan — a young fearless woman from Boston who was sight-impaired herself — worked tirelessly with young Helen to bring her back into the world of humanity.
Keller went on to become an author, lecturer, college founder, and political activist, and Annie Sullivan — “Teacher” — stayed by her side until Sullivan’s death in 1936. The two travelled the world and met many of the glitterati of the day, including author Mark Twain. It was Twain who presented Sullivan with a card that read, “To Mrs. John Sullivan Macy, with warm regards & with limitless admiration of the wonders she has performed as a ‘miracle-worker.’”
Ten-year-old Emma Suhr plays Keller — recreating the role which garnered Patty Duke an Oscar — with Tina Marie Realmuto as Sullivan.
“At first it seemed difficult to pretend that I had lost two of the senses that I actually have,” said Suhr, “but then it was less difficult because of all of the late-night rehearsals. Being tired made it easier to stare off into the distance.”
Suhr credits the show’s director Joan Lyons with helping her stay in character, “even with different things going on around us.”
“I realize that in rehearsal, I am Helen and that helps me focus,” she continued.
Although she knew it would be a challenging role, Suhr was drawn to Helen’s character. “I knew this would be a brand-new experience for me,” she stated. “But after learning so much about Helen, I knew that she had a big personality, even though she was blind and deaf.”
One of the most famous and energetic scenes in all of American theater is known as “the dining room scene” — where Sullivan locks all the family members out of the dining room as she attempts to simply get Helen to sit at the table and eat with a spoon.
Grice promises the performers go to the mat on this one. “We recreate it 100 percent,” she said. “Fighting, food throwing, crawling, smacking each other, everything. It’s a full-on fight.”
She had the chance to interview Anne Bancroft, the actress who brought Annie Sullivan to life on Broadway in the original production and in the 1962 film.
“As a child, I saw the movie featuring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft and was haunted by their story,” said Grice. “When the radio station was still up at the college [Stony Brook Southampton], Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft came out for the writers’ conference one year,” Grice recalled.
“Bancroft was battling chemo. She was dressed in a woolen coat, with a gloves and hat, and she just couldn’t get warm. But she spent 20 minutes with me. I remember saying that probably most people’s first thought of her was as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, but my first thought is always Annie Sullivan. That I thought it was her greatest role. And she said, ‘It’s my favorite role too.’
From then on, it was my mission to do this play.”
She was able to raise $9000 through a Kickstarter campaign, with additional donations from the Southampton Lions Club, the North Sea Lions Club, Bob Grisnik/Southrifty Drug, John Raimondi, Samantha Bruce Benjamin, and Daniel Becker.
Besides being fascinated by the story of The Miracle Worker, Grice also is a devotee of the Victorian age. “This is my time period,” she said. Grice researched and sourced the production’s vintage costumes and has created several pieces.
The Miracle Worker runs 70 minutes with no intermission on Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28, at 7 PM with a matinee on Sunday, April 29 at 2 PM at the Southampton Cultural Center.
There are three weekday performances that are specially designated for the Southampton Elementary and Middle Schools.
Tickets are $20 general admission and $5 for children 12 years and under. Get yours at www.bootsonthegroundtheater.com or www.SCC-Arts.org.