By Emmett Burnett
What are the odds that two of America’s most beloved plays originated and are performed in the same state? Of course we speak of Alabama’s theatrical duo of distinction: “The Miracle Worker” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Together, they are Tuscumbia and Monroeville’s tale of two cities.
Each play features a strong female child leading role – Helen Keller and Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. Both shows are performed – at least partly – outdoors, on sites where the story occurs. And each play evokes goosebumps.
Let’s look behind the curtain at Alabama’s plays of world renown.
The Miracle Worker
Tuscumbia’s deaf blind girl who sees with her heart is the epitome of triumph over tragedy.
“The history of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan is one of amazement,” says Jonathan Moore, who plays Helen’s father, Captain Arthur Keller. “It is indeed a miracle. Before Helen Keller, people either lived with being deaf and blind or they were committed to an asylum,” Moore adds. “Annie gave Helen’s life a meaning and purpose.”
Darren Butler, who directed Tuscumbia’s play for about two decades, agrees. “This is more than a play,” the Orange Beach resident says. “For many, it is a pilgrimage. Helen and Annie redefined how we treat those with special needs.”
Preseason auditions are held annually to select the cast. Adult actors often reclaim their roles but child actors, especially those portraying Helen, are good for about two years because, well, they grow up.
“The amount of rehearsals depends on how many new people we have,” says director Caroline Self. “Much emphasis is placed on the actress who plays Helen. I played her, and understand how hard that role can be. We are asking a child to take on huge responsibilities. She is working with adult actors in live theater.”
Butler agrees: “We are looking for a girl who can keep her eyes still. We have to trick the audience into believing she cannot see or hear. Helen has no lines except ‘wa-wa.’ But inside her mind she is running internal dialogue.
“We want a girl who can tell the story through facial expressions and body actions.”
Not every child can play the key role but Lillie Meyer can. “It is an honor to portray Helen Keller,” says the 12-year-old actress.
Performed on the lawn of the Keller’s home, Ivy Green, Helen discovers “wa-wa,” as water trickles over her fingers from a world-famous pump. The prop is literally a hundred yards from the real one. In the iconic scene, water not only drips from the pump, it tears in audience’s eyes.
Lillie makes it look easy. It is not. She notes, “In rehearsals and research, I discovered how to portray the movements and facial expressions of a blind and deaf person.”
“One of the hard parts is learning how to be slapped,” she explains, referencing the “fight scene” between Helen and Annie Sullivan. “Knowing you are about to be slapped but not flinching, takes practice but it’s vital.” A blind person about to be slapped would not flinch, and therefore, neither can Lillie.
Every act, mannerism, and movement is scrutinized to the last detail. The playwright insisted on it. Caroline Self and Darren Butler had the opportunity to meet ‘The Miracle Worker’s’ creator, William Gibson, in his Massachusetts home. Gibson considered Ivy Green to be hallowed grounds.
“He told us ‘The Miracle Worker,’ performed at Helen Keller’s home, must be the best here, as in any place in the world. For this is where it all happened,” recalls Self, about Gibson’s beliefs. “I never want the cast to forget that. We walk the grounds and tour the house before starting rehearsal to connect the story to what we are telling.”
Jonathan Moore notes, “Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan are more than historical figures. They are heroes. Therefore, we want to create the best product we can.”
Appreciative audiences say thank you – some while wiping their eyes.
“The Miracle Worker,”
June 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17, 23, 24; July 7-8, 14-15
No production June 30 – July 1;
Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; gates open at 7 p.m.
Reserved seats, $20; groups of 20 or more, $17; general admission, $15
For more information, visit helenkellerbirthplace.org
To Kill a Mockingbird
By Act Two of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” text messages buzzed throughout Monroeville. “You will never guess who is here,” was a common post, as news spread. Seated in the audience was J.K. Rowling.
The author of the Harry Potter books was in town to enjoy the work of another famous author, Harper Lee. At the show’s end, Rowling vanished before most people knew she was there. But “To Kill a Mockingbird” remains and always will. Once you see it you never forget it.
One does not just “see” Monroeville’s play, one experiences it. “’To Kill a Mockingbird’ is an immersive experience,” says play director Carly Jo Martens, who as a child played main character Jean Louise “Scout” Finch. “I’m not trying to toot our own horn, but Monroeville’s version is like no other.”
Kathy McCoy, the play’s first director, starting in 1991, adds, “It is a little bit magical, especially sitting in the Old Court House Museum where the story unfolds.”
The play starts outdoors in an amphitheater setting. In the second half, cast and audience enter the Old Courthouse Museum’s court room for the famous trial scene. Jury members are chosen from the audience and on with the show.
Carly notes the courtroom trial scene is difficult because it is uncomfortable. “Watching the trial you want to see justice,” she says. “You want to see Mayella Ewell testify, ‘This is not what happened!’ But she never does.”
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” often required reading in middle school, has a dark side. Like the book, the play is a delicate balance of a child’s interaction with adult drama.
“When casting for Scout, I have a conversation with child applicants,” notes the director Martens. “For many children, the only acting experience they have is church plays which are usually sweet and happy. But ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is not sweet. It is bittersweet.”
Martens continues, “parents must know that Scout has a lot of lines. The actress portraying her needs to read the script daily.” Like “The Miracle Worker,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” depends on the crucial role of a child actress.
Kathy McCoy recalls the early days. “At first we were concerned how local people would react,” she notes, about the play’s initial performances. “Over the years the show became accepted. The town became an ambassador for the play.”
Monroeville’s performance is entirely volunteer area actors. “I did not want professionals,” McCoy recalls. “Part of the play’s charm is using amateur – but excellent – actors cast right here in Harper Lee’s hometown.”
The cast has also taken the show on the road, including Washington D.C., Chicago, Hong Kong, England, and Israel.
“I recall a performance in Jerusalem,” notes Monroeville’s Dot Bradley, who plays Calpurnia, the housekeeper. “During the show a guy in the audience keep wiping his eyes. After the performance, he came up to me, weeping, and said, ‘I’m sorry.’
“I told him, ‘Sir, don’t apologize for what you did not do. This play reminds us to respect yourself and respect others. So stop the tears.’ We hugged and he left.”
In 1962, Birmingham native Mary Badham played Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the movie. At age 10, with no previous acting experience, she was nominated for the Academy Award’s Best Supporting Actress.
But in that same evening, the Oscar went to another child actress, Patty Duke, for her performance as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.”
Years later, both Patty Duke and Mary Badham attended the Alabama plays they became famous for. Thousands continue to do so.
Everyone interviewed for this story agrees, until you have seen these plays in the towns where they happened, you have not truly experienced them.
Yes, the rockets of Huntsville, the sea ports of Mobile, and industries of Birmingham, draw global recognition. But two small towns, Tuscumbia and Monroeville, put Alabama on the world’s stage.
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” April 14 – May 20.See website for specific dates and times.
For more stories and history, read Monroeville and the Stage Production of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by John M. Williams.