Actress Patty Duke, who earned an Oscar for her portrayal of Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," could wind up working a miracle in Des Plaines -- or least helping to leverage one.
Duke is considering bringing a production of William Gibson's play "The Miracle Worker," which she would direct, to the Des Plaines Theatre in an effort to give the historic showplace a financial boost that could put the recently shuttered facility back on the right path after it reopens.
"Looking at this theater, I loved the space, as they say," Duke said after touring the 89-year-old theater Sunday. "The proscenium depth available is perfect for that set. It's a very big set, where you have got the dining room where the food fight takes place and the garden house where the real learning takes place. And there is an upstairs. This theater lends itself to all of that beautifully."
She called it a "lovely, historic theater."
"I would love to be able to bring in the funding that it needs," she added. "It doesn't need a giant facelift. But a little nip and tuck wouldn't be bad."
Duke said she is looking at other theaters as well, but being a "history maven," she loved the history of the Des Plaines Theatre.
Downers Grove resident Jack Phillips, a director and friend of Duke's, was instrumental in acquainting her with the theater.
"We have a history of working together in regional theater in Spokane (Wash.)," said Duke, who lives in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.
Phillips directed her in a production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" in 1999 at the Spokane Civic Theater. Phillips, who on Sunday joined Duke in Des Plaines, said she portrayed "a wonderful Amanda. She found all the humor that is in that play."
Phillips, who has acted with Duke as well as directed her, said he had been talking with Duke about her directing "The Miracle Worker" in Chicago.
"We were just talking at one time -- five years ago or so -- and she said, 'You know, I have always wanted to direct 'The Miracle Worker.' Let's see if we can find a place in Chicago to do it.'," Phillips said.
Phillips learned of Des Plaines Theatre from Beth Pauze, a Des Plaines resident whose actress daughter, Elizabeth Stenholt, has worked with the director.
"I thought, 'What a perfect place,'" he said of his first impressions of the theater.
The theater was ordered closed earlier this year by the city of Des Plaines because of unaddressed code violations. Pauze has become active in trying to save the theater, which was built in 1925 as a vaudeville house.
"Our goal in the next few months is to find investors. This sort of thing can help that," she said.
"Des Plaines needs some kind of production here to get people to respect this theater a lot more," Stenholt added.
Duke said she does not want to disconnect from the play, which revolves around the relationship between the blind and deaf Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan.
"(Helen Keller) and Anne Sullivan have been a part of my life -- my daily life -- for 60 years."
She recalled meeting Helen Keller at her home in Arcan Ridge in Easton, Conn. The occasion was Keller's 80th birthday.
"She spent the entire day with me," she said. "She allowed me to finger spell. She was beyond that. She would put her hand to your face, on your jaw, and vibrations of the jaw and her finger on your lips -- that's how she communicated. But she allowed me, because I was doing the finger spelling, to spell to her."
Duke said there was an aura of grace and humor about Keller.