Imagine living in darkness and in silence — unable to see, to hear, to communicate. That was Helen Keller’s world until a determined teacher named Annie Sullivan came into her life. Refusing to give up on her sometimes violent student, the young woman achieved a breakthrough that meant a whole new beginning for Helen Keller. The first deaf-blind person to earn a college degree, Keller became known worldwide as a speaker and author.
One of the world’s most frequently performed plays, “The Miracle Worker” went to Broadway in 1959 starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960 and was made into a 1962 film, also starring Duke and Bancroft, who both won Oscars for their roles.
Taking the role of Helen Keller in Spotlight’s production is 11-year-old Ava Newton, a fifth-grader at Montessori Kingdom of Learning in Peoria. She has also appeared as Susan Walker in “Miracle on 34th Street” for Arizona Broadway Theatre, and as Flounder in “The Little Mermaid” and Lucy in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” for TheaterWorks.
What is it like to play a deaf and blind girl? “It’s a very challenging and complex role,” Ava says, adding that she is enjoying “how different it is.” She says she’s had discussions with her family about what it would be like if she had lost these senses, and she’s been working on learning how to block out everything when she is onstage.
Performing in her first show for Spotlight is 17-year-old Julia Murphy as Annie Sullivan. Julia is a junior at Arizona School for the Arts in Phoenix and says it’s an honor to be able to portray someone she thinks is a great role model for every young woman.
“Annie Sullivan has been one of my dream roles for a while now, because she is someone who I greatly admire,” she says. “She was a scholarly, determined, disciplined, though slightly rebellious young woman, and she embodies everything I strive to be in my own life. She had more than her fair share of hardships, and she could have very easily let her past consume her, but she made a decision to not give in.” Julia believes that’s where Annie’s strength comes from. “She was devoted to Helen, and despite the cards she was dealt, made the impossible possible.”
Located in a shopping center at Peoria and 43rd avenues, Spotlight strives to offer a place where kids can perform in a family-oriented setting that both embraces teamwork and supports the individual. Past shows include such well-known titles as “The Sound of Music,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Les Misérables” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” In the last three seasons, Spotlight artists, performers and productions received 379 award nominations and won 124 awards.
“As the world of ‘The Miracle Worker’ is as much before my time as that of our young actors, it’s been a rewarding journey for all of us to unwrap how it comes to life in the present,” says Bobby Sample, who is directing the show. He believes the heart of the story is relatable to everyone. “It’s all about the passion of a teacher, the love of a family, and the bridges we cross when we learn what people of all different backgrounds bring to the table. It’s also got a lot of humor and messy situations, which I have to admit are my favorite parts!”
Why go see “The Miracle Worker”?
One reason, Sample says, is this: “This cast turns the play into a very personal and emotional ride for the audience — especially in the intimate space of our stage where even the back row is only a few yards away from them. I doubt that even those who know this story realize what a special experience they’re in for with this show.”
“It has universal messages of perseverance that anyone can relate to and apply to their own lives,” Julia says, adding, “It’s one of those stories that inspire you to be a better version of yourself.”
“I really want everyone to come see the show,” Ava adds. “We have put a lot into this and can’t wait to share it.”