It isn’t easy to stage William Gibson’s play, “The Miracle Worker,” about Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.
For one thing, much of it is told without words, in page after page of stage directions.
For another, the topic — a deaf-and-blind girl learning to communicate — requires a great deal of sensitivity.
But Blind Brook and Briarcliff high schools are accepting the challenge this week, and each is going to great lengths to make sure audiences will see something they won’t soon forget.
At Blind Brook High School in Rye Brook, director Christina Colangelo says she chose the play because she appreciated Gibson’s taut script and saw it as a way to showcase the Southern Westchester BOCES Deaf and Hard of Hearing Program, which has been in the district for 30 years.
The program allows students from across the northern suburbs, and as far away as Dutchess County, to study in regular education classes alongside interpreters.
Sophomore Nora Fisher plays Annie Sullivan and senior Jacqueline Mamorsky, an 18-year-old senior who is deaf, plays Helen Keller.
Mamorsky is no stranger to the stage, having appeared in “Stage Door” and “The Crucible.”
Last year, she interpreted the extended “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” ballet in “The King & I,” picking up the cast’s visual cues to translate the show into American Sign Language for an audience of deaf and hard-of-hearing theatergoers.
“She is such an extraordinary actress, I wanted to feature her, so she signed the entire ballet,” says Colangelo.
This year, Mamorsky will be in the middle of the action as Helen.
“A lot of it is Helen’s emotions being expressed through her physical person,” Mamorsky says through interpreter Sheryl Lopez, who works for BOCES in the district. “She was frustrated because she didn’t know how to communicate.”
That’s not Mamorsky’s problem. The senior’s eyes flash and her lips form the words as she signs.
“Helen and I are different because Helen couldn’t hear or see anything.” Mamorsky says. “It was harder for her to learn. I can see, so it’s easier for me, but I can still understand how she feels being frustrated when people don’t understand.”
The role is so physical that even though she has read the script and prepared for it, “it’s draining,” she says.
Fisher, a sophomore, plays Annie Sullivan and has a steep learning curve: Mamorsky already knows her sign language cold.
“I know the basic alphabet, but the hand motions have to be very precise in order to convey to the audience that I’m spelling to her, as opposed to just us two,” she says.
The lack of dialogue is a challenge, Colangelo says.
“There’s so much time where nothing’s being said,” the director says. “If it’s not done well, the audience will get bored, and if it’s overdone, it’s not realistic. Finding that balance is not easy.”
At a rehearsal last month, Colangelo tells Fisher and Mamorsky they can’t really fake the fact that these characters get into some scrapes.
“Are we prepared for that?” she asks.
Without missing a beat, Mamorsky signs: “I already know what it’s like to get bruises.”
Colangelo talks the actresses through a contentious dinner scene when Helen tries to disrupt Annie’s meal. Six pages of stage directions, each painstakingly planned, are interpreted and understood as the scene takes shape. After walking through it a couple of times, Fisher and Mamorsky fly through it, painting in broad strokes what will take on detail in the rehearsals to follow.
Fisher says the play has a lot of layers to it with deeper meaning if you dig a little.
The cast has been digging.
“Some of the kids are quite good at signing and have taken an interest to better communicate with Jackie and other kids in school,” Colangelo says. “This is one of those great ways to use the theater to get kids excited about something and use it in their everyday lives.”
Mamorsky says that playing all of Helen’s emotions — confusion, joy, sadness, anger, frustration — is difficult, as is staying in character all the time on stage.
When she’s reminded that that’s what actresses do, Mamorsky laughs and breaks out into a big grin.
Yes, that’s what actresses do, she signs.
What: “The Miracle Worker”
Where: Blind Brook High School, 840 King St., Rye Brook.
When: 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday.
With: Jacqueline Mamorsky, Nora Fisher, Sarah Ackerman, Nick Brascesco, Alyssa Davis, Blythe Duckett, Sydney Grau, Melanie Greenwald, Katie Hanson, Nicole Heney, Julia Joseph, Rachel Joseph, Tyler Ketchabaw, Elana Levy, Diksha Nagia, Lindsay Nuckel, Alyssa Piperis, Karen Rind-Siegel, Jason Rosenzweig, Cynthia Segal, Olivia Weinshank, Sage Yockelson.
Note: ASL interpretation will be provided on Saturday and at an open dress rehearsal at 4 p.m. Friday. When purchasing tickets, alert them If you will be using the ASL interpreter.
At Briarcliff High School, director Ian Driver invited two counselors who work with deaf and blind people to meet with his “Miracle Worker” cast last month, early enough in the process to make an impact on how they approached the play.
One of the counselors, Maricar Marquez, is deaf and legally blind. She and her interpreter and friend Susie Morgan Morrow work at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youth and Adults on Long Island.
For nearly two hours, Marquez and Morgan Morrow answered students’ questions to give them a glimpse into the world Helen Keller knew.
They sat close together, Marquez’ guide dog at her feet and her left hand cupped over Morgan Morrow’s right hand to feel the sign-language words the interpreter formed.
Driver asked what the most common misperception is about the deaf and blind.
“Helen Keller is the famous name, but if you look at me, I’m nothing like Helen Keller,” said Marquez, a Filipino by birth whose family moved to Canada.
She and her sister were born with Usher syndrome, a condition that causes deafness and leads to gradual vision loss.
There are many causes of deafness and blindness, and life experiences differ, Marquez said, so that is a misperception, that all deaf and blind people are alike.
“I was born deaf, so sign language is my native language like English is yours,” said Marquez, who grew up with sight.
“I could see the stars and all the constellations, but now I don’t know what they are,” she said. “I kind of forgot about the stars.”
Jessica Lynch, the Briarcliff freshman who plays Helen, asked Marquez how she feels when she walks into a new environment.
“If it’s a new place, it’s rather anxiety-ridden and there are challenges involved, but you have to make sure you have back-up strategies if you get turned around or get lost,” she said.
Brandon Epstein, a senior who plays Helen’s father, wondered about the frustration Marquez felt as her blindness set in.
“It was an emotional time, particularly in high school,” she said, “and there was a lot of peer pressure. My friends were getting their drivers’ licenses and I wasn’t. So that was frustrating. Yeah, I was cranky, to say the least.”
A student asked if it was true that losing one sense heightens the others.
“I think so,” Marquez said. “My sense of smell is better. I can recognize scents before sighted people can.”
What is her favorite smell?
Then Marquez turned the tables on the group, asking who plays Helen and how she landed the role.
Driver was a bit taken aback, then thought about it.
“I had to think ‘What do we want in Helen Keller? How do we represent her?’ ” he said. “I wanted someone who could express the dangerous emotion that takes place, who was willing to throw things around and get physical. And someone who looked younger than the rest.”
(Senior Michelle Rubich plays Annie Sullivan.)
Before she left, Marquez taught the Briarcliff actors one theater-related fact: When deaf people like something they see in a theater, they don’t applaud. They stomp their feet.
The group then stomped their feet to thank their guests.
What: “The Miracle Worker”
Where: Briarcliff High School, 444 Pleasantville Road, Briarcliff Manor
When: 7:30 p.m., Nov. 20; 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
Tickets: $12.50 at www.showtix4U.com
With: Rebecca Chalsen, Brandon Epstein, Brian Cipollina, Chloe Effron, Devereaux Elms, Emily Levine, Emma Flihan, Erica James, Jake Chatzky, Jessica Lynch, Jimmy Crowley, Jordan Mendelson, Julie Pitter, Katelyn Wilson, Laura Johnson, Olivia Glass, Michelle Rubich, Nikita Singh, Olivia Rerek, Patrick Davey, Rebecca Milner, Samantha Kahn, Sarah Crosswell, Vanessa Daneshvar, Zarah Kavarana, Elizabeth Chalsen, Matt Kaye.
Watch: Michelle Rubich and Jessica Lynch talk about meeting a deaf-and-blind counselor at www.lohud.com.
Photos by Carucha Meuse/The Journal News
Top: Nora Fisher, center left, and Jacqueline Mamorsky, center right, watch as interpreter Sheryl Lopez, right, signs Christina Colangelo’s direction during a rehearsal of “The Miracle Worker” at Blind Brook High School last month. Mamorsky, a deaf student at Blind Brook, plays Helen Keller.
Second: Jacqueline Mamorsky, left, is Helen and Nora Fisher, right, is Annie in the Blind Brook High School production of “The Miracle Worker.”
Third: Maricar Marquez signs an answer as interpretert Susie Morgan Morrow looks on.
Fourth: Michelle Rubich plays Annie Sullivan at Briarcliff High School.
Bottom: Jessica Lynch plays Helen Keller at Briarcliff High School.