The Courier -By: Pam Chickering May 1998
Eyes rolled up and out of place in her head, walking with the aid of a touched hand, there is no question the woman before us cannot see. And her words, the carefully-formed, almost belabored syllables carry the unplaceable accent of the profoundly deaf. Yet she communicates, with an intensity and wit that takes us by surprise, even those of us who know her story. Ultimately, she wants us to see, beyond those sightless eyes, beyond her so-obvious disabilities, to the tremendous ability, which lies behind her circumstance, to become a teacher to the world.
Her aim—to teach “the people who never learned the simple honest language of the heart.”
The woman is Helen Keller, brought alive by Jinx Davis, who takes the story made famous by “The Miracle Worker” beyond that happy ending to explore the complex adult lives of blind and deaf Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.
“Illuminated Darkness.” which opened this month at The Mode Theater, sees the woman through continued barriers of prejudice, accusations of hoax, countless personal tragedies and victories. The production combines the retold history of Keller and Sullivan in the first half with a visit by Keller in the second, as she appeared to audiences in 38 countries during her 50-year tour, walking among the audiences and answering questions candidly and intelligently. Throughout, the sweet ballads of Ann Marie Aumann, accompanied by David Israelstam and Steve Tesmer, provide a lyrical backdrop for the story. Aumann, of Milwaukee, sings the kind of music that could be appreciated by all—the sweetest ballad, tinged with folk and a little blues, and words that resonate with the story, as “To feel your touch inside my hand…”
As Keller, Davis listens through her feet and her hands on the stage—eyes closed, feeling the vibrations of the music as it comes through the floor.
The story begins in 1887, when Keller is a wild child, 6 years old deaf and blind since infancy—yet she has already developed a few signs of her own. “When she wanted ice cream, she’d turn the crank and shiver,” Davis says as Sullivan, retelling the pairs meeting for yet another Vaudeville crowd. “I taught her how to speak using the language the Spanish monks had used so as not to break their vow of silence, but at first I could not get through, until in frustration, I took her out to the pump and held her hands in the water and signed W-A-T-E-R. Suddenly, something happened,” Sullivan says. “That day, she learned 30 new words,” Sullivan says. “Since then, she has learned to speak, read and write in five languages.”
One finger pressed against the side of her nose to feel the nasal buzz, one against the throat to feel the vocals, the third against the side of the mouth to feel the percussive sounds, Keller again repeats her first spoken sentence, “I am not dumb!” “Everything I have learned is because of human touch,” Keller says, the belabored accent growing smoother, as if with years’ practice. Expanding the metaphor, she continues, “Alone, we can do nothing. If we can break the walls between us, something magical can happen.”
The first year after Keller’s discovery, she blossoms in the light of all the new learning open to her, devouring language in all forms, writing back to the Perkins Institute to the Blind, in every language she could discover, and exuding an unmatched joy in life.
Betrayal comes at the tender age of 9, when Keller writes a story as a birthday present for the director of the Perkins Institute. The press gets a hold of it and runs the little girl’s fantasy “The Frost King” side by side with a piece written 20 years, which has similarities in image and plot. “A hoax!” the papers rule, and from here forward, Keller has to prove herself again for every audience, at every turn. Keller’s diary carries a plaintive note, “I’m sure I never heard it!” She says she thought of her story in the fall, when Sullivan described the frost to her. “I thought fairies must have painted them, because they were so delicate,” she writes.
Later betrayals came when Keller, a mature woman, gains an admirer, and they register for a marriage license—but cannot meet without being cut off by one member or another of Keller’s family, armed with a shotgun. “Mr. Keller sat on the porch with a shotgun many, many nights.” Davis says, taking on the adamant tones of a protective father. “Helen could not have a lover! She was deaf and blind!”
One night, Keller creeps down the stairs at 2 a.m. with her bag, waking no-one, since she needs no light to get ready. She stands on the porch waiting for her love, and waiting until the warmth of the sum falls on her shoulders. Cut off again, her beau had finally given up and vanished.
The latter part of the program introduces Keller herself, as she comes in on the arm of host Andy Pizer and then takes over the show, as Keller in her advancing years, having outlived he teacher and many of her friends, but still traveling, communicating with anyone who will listen. When the musicians play, she feels the music through the piano, one hand underneath, one resting lightly over the keys, over the piano player’s hand. As the sound starts to come through, Keller’s hands start to tremble, and a grin steals over her face, the smile of one who recognizes each instrument through it’s vibrations and who appreciates music in her own way, though her perception differs from ours.
“Yes, I close my eyes when I sleep; I can foxtrot very well; yes, I did go to Hollywood and they made a movie out of me, but I thought it was so crass,” Keller says, quickly dispensing with all the usual questions. “Can you feel the moonlight? No, but I can taste the moonshine!” she laughs.
Keller begins her presentation with Aumann translating the audience’s word into her hand, but soon she grows impatient with this indirect communication, and when a member of the audience comes forward, she “listens” herself, hand to the speaker’s mouth and throat to feel the sound. “Can you describe what form your thoughts took before you had words?” one listener asks. “It is so important to know the name of things,” Keller responds. “Not just little things, but everything. Before I knew language, I would run around and get what I wanted, but I have no recollection of a feeling, no emotion before I had words. I remember I was asked what a dandelion was, and we touched it and I knew it danced in the wind. Annie, I am a walk plant!” she says excitedly. Asked her favorite thing to touch, Keller responds, “the hand of my teacher.” Asked how she felt when accused of plagiarism at the age of 9, she says, “When they told me I was not using my own words, it felt like they crushed a baby bird in my home and left it there.”
By the time the play ends, too soon, the audience has been charmed by the witty, heartfelt Keller and questions still dance, half-formulated, in our heads.