For the fall play at St. Viator High School in Arlington Heights, students had to learn more than just their lines. They had to learn American Sign Language and immerse themselves in the story of Helen Keller and her devoted teacher, Annie Sullivan.
"We know how inspiring the story of Helen Keller is," says senior Ryan Lavelle of Hoffman Estates, who plays Capt. Keller, Helen's father. He said the cast is working hard "to make sure we capture that in the play."
At the first dress rehearsals held last week, cast members felt the tensions rising as they packed more and more emotion into their scenes.
"We nailed it," said junior Ryan Wolfe of Arlington Heights, who plays the role of Jimmy, Keller's stepbrother. He finally stands up to his father in a pivotal exchange.
Shows take place at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 25, 26 and 27 and at 1 p.m. on Oct. 28. Tickets are $5 at the door.
Seniors Abbey Austin of Barrington and Maddy Kelly of Arlington Heights share the role of Sullivan. Both had to memorize 80 pages of dialogue, not to mention all the physical challenges of the role. Before "the miracle," when Helen finally understands the meaning of language, she is a handful.
"It's such a physical role," Kelly says. "There's kicking and fighting, and I have to pick her up all the time. But in the end, it's so rewarding."
Austin still marvels over Sullivan's ability to overcome her dismal upbringing -- losing her mother and sent with her brother to live in a poorhouse -- and her own disabilities with her diminished eyesight.
"And yet, she's such a bright soul," Austin says. "She wants everyone to have a better life."
Junior Natalie Olson of Prospect Heights and sophomore Maria Werba of Arlington Heights share the role of Helen Keller. Both are acting in their first drama, having cut their teeth in the school's musicals -- and they're finding it a challenge.
"It's hard knowing that all of the dialogue in the play depends on my actions," Olson says. "And since I can't see or hear anything, I can't anticipate any cues onstage."
In the end, Olson says, the play works because of the ensemble cast and their tightknit working relationships.
Director Kate Costello says the play has a broader message, beyond seeing the blind and deaf Keller suddenly connect with the world around her.
"It examines the delicate balance between discipline and understanding that we all face in teaching," Costello says. "It also highlights the conflict between parents and teachers over the best way to handle children, especially special-needs or vulnerable children. It is really a celebration of our profession."