Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"The child's a Keller!" - Thoughts on Portraying Captain Keller in 'The Miracle Worker'

“Nonsense! The child is a Keller! She has the constitution of a goat!”

Thus Captain Arthur Keller introduces himself in the stage production of “The Miracle Worker,” the story of Helen Keller’s introduction to the teacher who illuminated her darkness, Anne Sullivan. I have the honor of portraying the Captain in Springfield Little Theatre’s current production.

This initial line reveals so much about Keller’s character, in just a few short words. In the scene, he has just been told by the family doctor that the doctor thought his daughter Helen may not live through the illness that ultimately took her sight and her hearing.

This is impossible for the Captain to believe. And why? Because “the child is a Keller!” It means something to be a Keller. It means strength. It means courage. It means pride. Being a Keller means overcoming obstacles, refusing to accept defeat, never backing down. Over and over again in the Captain’s relationships, this is evident.

Keller’s wife Kate carries a gentle, compassionate demeanor on a framework as hard as Alabama iron. She is his second wife, and many years younger than he. She balances his gruff bluster with calm composure, and yet is more than a match for his inner strength. She knows exactly how to utilize subtle humor, a tender touch, or a clever expression to defuse his fury at just the right moment. He values her as his wife because she exhibits a very “Keller-esque” strength of character.

The Captain has a son from his first marriage, whose name is James. James is a Keller through and through. He shares his father’s grief, even years after his mother died. Yet her death is a topic they avoid discussing, and as a result their relationship exhibits all the disappointment and pain that have built up over the years. However, Jimmie clearly has the Keller courage, which allows him to eventually stand up to his father and claim his own identity. The play ends before we witness the full resolution of their relationship, but the seeds are planted.

When the “inexperienced, half-blind, Yankee schoolgirl” Anne Sullivan enters his world, Captain Keller is initially the picture of southern hospitality, albeit overtly misogynistic. Anne’s unyielding determination quickly begins to infuriate him, as she refuses to acquiesce to his wishes. However it is precisely this stubbornness that eventually impresses the Captain deeply. They stand toe-to-toe on multiple occasions, and she matches his intensity every time. He sees in her a person who will not surrender, despite the odds, and he cannot help but come to respect her for that.

And then there’s Helen. She is in many ways the most “Keller” of all the Kellers. There is a moment just after she meets Anne Sullivan – Helen is carrying Anne’s suitcase and Anne reaches out to take it for herself. Helen quickly and aggressively slaps Anne’s hand away, thereby insisting that she can carry it on her own. This delights Captain Keller! “That’s my girl,” he thinks as he chuckles to himself. The Captain loves Helen dearly, but struggles to show it. It comes out in the little quiet ways that he spoils her, allowing her to have “the little things that make her happy.” There is always a special relationship between a father and a daughter, and this is true of the Captain’s relationship with Helen as well. He wants nothing more than to connect with her, to share something with her. And yet he is “as sensible to this affliction as anyone,” and has become begrudgingly resigned to the idea that there will always be a separation there, the thought of which is an unending source of anger and frustration for him.

When it comes to the Captain’s relationship with Helen, there is one line in the script that I really do not like. Speaking “to” Helen, I say, “You do not even know that I’m your father.” I understand the playwright’s point here, but I do not agree with the idea behind the line. I actually think there is a deep, unspoken connection between Helen and her father. They are very, very similar, and he admires her very, very much. He may not be equipped to express it well, but nevertheless it is there.

There is, on the flip side, a line the Captain speaks that I really, really love. “We don’t just keep our children safe – they keep us safe.” There is such a profound truth expressed here, one I have pondered deeply as I have worked on this show. A child keeps a parent safe by grounding them, by keeping them focused on what is truly important, by pulling them out of themselves and into the life of another person. A child gives a parent a level of accountability and trust that is hard to get anywhere else. And therefore, when there is a separation between child and parent, whatever that separation might be, it hurts deeply. It is unbearable.

As the Keller family interacts on stage these next two weekends, I hope that audience members will see what it means to be “a Keller.” As Anne Sullivan enters this family system and completely disrupts the entire order, I hope our audience is right there with us, feeling the disruption, the conflict, the anxiety, and ultimately the resolution of that breakthrough moment.

I also hope that we can tell this amazing story of strength and courage as well as we possibly can. It is a unique kind of challenge to tell a true story on stage, and a familiar one besides. Most of our audience will already know this story. I have enjoyed portraying the Captain for that very reason; it has given me a new perspective on and appreciation for the remarkable life of a true American hero, Helen Keller.

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