:: The Jersey Journal | SIGN OF THE TIMES ::


Hoboken theater group mounts production of ‘Miracle Worker’

Friday, April 06, 2007

Learning lines and remembering cues are part of an actor’s craft, but cast members in Hudson Theatre Ensemble’s production of “The Miracle Worker” wrapped their minds around a totally new skill set by learning sign language.

Premiering tonight at 8 p.m., “The Miracle Worker,” by William Gibson, is the story of Helen Keller – a blind, deaf and mute 7-year-old who’s become almost savage due to her inability to communicate, and whose family members are at their wits’ end – and her fiercely determined teacher, Annie Sullivan.

“Playing Annie Sullivan is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” said actress Kelly Reeves, 29, of Jersey City. “It’s a role that doesn’t come along very often.”

On top of learning the sign language alphabet – which Sullivan teaches Keller to recognize when characters are pressed into her palm – the principal roles are physically taxing, Reeves said.

In a scene at the end of the first act where Sullivan teaches Keller not to grab food from people’s plates, “they have a knock-down, slap-around fight about it.”

Though 10-year-old Phoebe Crego, who plays Keller, obviously didn’t have to memorize pages of dialogue, she had to remember other actors’ lines in order to pick up her cues.

“It’s been hard not speaking for a long time, because I love to talk,” said Phoebe, who lives in Hoboken and attends fifth grade at Stevens Cooperative School. “I never knew how hard it was for people who couldn’t see or talk or communicate with their mouths.”

Since it was made into a classic 1962 film, “The Miracle Worker” is an extremely high-profile play, and director Laurie Brongo had plenty of actors to choose from after the audition. Ironically, the best candidates for Sullivan and Keller hailed from Jersey City and Hoboken respectively.

She praised the entire cast for its innovative spirit.

“They made some acting choices that were not first in my mind,” said Brongo, who mentioned Reeves’ decision to play Sullivan as a spirited and positive presence, while other actresses have portrayed her with a darker edge. “The fun thing about being a director is hiring people who bring themselves to it.”

For Reeves, the most profound scene in the play comes at the end – when Keller finally grasps that objects have names signified by the signs she’s been learning and eagerly touches everything within her reach to learn what it’s called.

“Even the very first time we did it in rehearsal with no props, it just immediately gave me a chill,” she said. “You get a sense of the entirety of the struggle – not only hers, but her family’s.”

The Hudson Theatre Ensemble started as a play-reading group 10 years ago and – drawing on the pool of acting talent in Hudson County – now produces one adult play and two children’s plays a year, says artistic director Diana London.

COTTON DELO can be reached at cdelo@jjournal.com

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