note: entire contents copyright 2000 By Alan W. Petrucelli
WEST HARWICH --- They were miracle workers, these two women who have taken their places in history books for their tenacity and talent. Annie Sullivan was the teacher, herself once blind; her student, a deaf and blind and dumb (a word accepted back then but that today is politically incorrect) wild child named Helen Keller. Annie came to teach Helen to "see" and "hear" ... and accomplished the most miraculous of miracles. Their story of tears and triumphs was told by playwright William Gibson in "The Miracle Worker."
This week, a miracle is brewing in West Harwich. Lisa Canto Nikula has directed a production of the drama at the Harwich Junior Theatre, running through March 26. It's a show Nikula, 41, has longed to stage, especially, she says, "because I love women on stage. And I love movement,. Different people have different patterns, and I knew that Helen Keller's movement was getting anything she dammed well wanted."
But nothing prepared Nikula, who spent eight years working with deaf and blind children and adults at a Cape-based organization for the handicapped, for what she calls "the miracle" that occurred during auditions. Five kids were up for the role of Helen --- weeded down from the original 30 --- all of them current or past HJT students of Nikula.
Then there was a 10-year-year named Nicole Blodgett.
For the first scene, Nikula explained what she wanted each child to do; the action comes from a scene in Gibson's work in which Helen finds a suitcase, rummages through it and takes out the doll hidden inside. "The only directions I gave the girls," Nikula recalls, "was to simply remember them that they cannot see or hear." It's a crucial scene in the play, and Nikula knew it would be an ideal gauge acting abilities.
Girl after girl did the scene. The suitcase was unzipped, belongings rummaged through, doll found and hugged.
Then there was Nicole Blodgett.
The surprise and shock in the brilliance of her audition can still be heard in Nikula's voice, even weeks after the initial scene: "Nicole took her time to find the suitcase, and when she did, she didn't simply open it. She bumped into it. She lied on its back. She smelled it. She explored it like no other girl before her had. Then she opened it and explored every item inside --- underwear, a wooden spoon, a slip --- immediately determining if she liked or disliked them. And it wasn't the doll she hugged and caressed, but a piece of soft cloth. And when it came time for the stage manager, who was standing in for the woman who would play Annie, to take away the suitcase, Nicole won."
As good as Blodgett was, the role wasn't hers. Yet.
Nikula had the five girls do one more scene, this time pairing each potential Helen with each of the five older women auditioning for the role of Annie Sullivan. Chatham resident Megan Ludlow. 17, was paired with Nicole. "I told each Annie that she had 30 seconds to teach Helen something; I told each Helen that she had those same 30 seconds to refuse to be taught anything."
Again, Nikula basks in the memory of Nicole's audition: "Megan was so loving with Nicole that I got all choked up, but Nicole screamed at her like something caught ina trap ... an animal that was so out of control the scream even sacred Megan," Nikula recalls. "I knew I had my Helen --- and my Annie."
The role marks Nicole's stage debut; Ludlow and Kim Crocker, the woman playing Helen's mother, a long-time HJT favorites. "When I had Nicole as a student, I realized she is a girl so not jaded by acting that she doesn't know how to say 'sorry,': Nikula says. "Everything she feels and does is out on the line. Her talent is so ..." Nikula pauses to search for the right word. "Organic." Nikula was careful is suggesting that Nicole not watch the movie of Gibson's play, so that her interpretation be her own and not suggested --- "even subconsciously" --- by its star Patty Duke.
As opening night nears, Nikula ponders the play's staging and lighting and stars --- and its title. "I would watch Megan and Nicole in rehearsals, and the seed within me --- the seed that nurtures me as a woman, wife and mother --- would surface, the seed that says, 'Help me. Please fix what's wrong.'" Nikula says. "I think we all can relate to those needs. I think that's one of the reasons we all pray for miracles."