Many Islanders are unaware that Helen Keller often visited Martha’s Vineyard decades ago as the guest of Katharine Cornell. She stayed at Chip Chop on Tashmoo, where, according to a 1968 letter written to former Gazette editor Henry Beetle Hough by Ms. Keller’s nurse-companion Winifred Corbally, she “loved to bathe in the ‘sea.’”
Ms. Keller’s legacy will return to the Island on Thursday, Nov. 15, when the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Department presents The Miracle Worker, a play by William Gibson that examines her early life and her relationship with teacher Anne Sullivan.
The challenging nature of this particular play has caused the play’s director, Kate Murray, to delay any attempts at production until she could build up enough interest amongst the performance art students. In addition to having a deaf and blind lead character, the play includes a lot of sign language, and is very physical, with extensive stage combat and other choreography. Also, it is a memory play, meaning that the story does not proceed chronologically, but instead jumps from one time period to another and back throughout the show. Five years into her career as the high school drama teacher, Ms. Murray has decided that the students are ready.
The enthusiasm for the production among the students is so strong that they decided to augment the script with more sign language than was originally written.
Ms. Murray has a personal connection to the work. At the age of nine, her sister, Joan Poole Nash, decided that she wanted to be a teacher for the deaf. Their great-grandmother knew the now extinct Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, from the age when the deaf population in Chilmark was one in 25. At that time, almost all Island residents were fluent in the Vineyard’s own sign dialect, and it was often used even when no deaf people were present. Ms. Nash learned to sign both from her great-grandmother and from time spent as a counselor at Camp Jabberwocky, and passed what she learned on to her younger sister. Ms. Murray says she has known sign language since the age of five, and seems elated about sharing her passion by directing this performance of The Miracle Worker. “I’ve wanted to do this for a long time. It’s one of my favorite plays,” she says.
The production features a cast of 23 actors and actresses, and a crew of eight. Senior Katie Clarke will play Helen Keller, sophomore Mariah MacKenzie will play Annie Sullivan, senior Jerome Pikor will play Captain Keller, junior Katie Ann Mayhew will play Kate Keller, senior Daniel Cuff will play James Keller, and senior Christian Walter will play Dr. Anagnos. Additionally, this is the first play for Charlie Esposito, the performing arts center’s new technical director, and the first time working as assistant director for Ashley Willoughby.
The first performance is on Thursday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m., the second on Friday, Nov. 14, also at 7 p.m., and the last on Saturday, Nov.15, at 2 p.m. The last performance will include an American Sign Language interpreter, Carol Baldwin. The cost of admission is $7 for students and seniors, and $10 for adults.