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Thursday, April 24, 2003 02:20 pm

Backstage Pass

Helen Keller, Samson in 1861 Kansas, and “Dimly Perceived Threats to the System”

The Miracle Worker

A touring company of the drama The Miracle Worker makes a stop at UIS's Sangamon Auditorium for one performance Saturday, April 25 (call 206-6160). The four-month, 40-city national tour comes from the Montana Repertory Theatre in Missoula.

William Gibson originally wrote The Miracle Worker as a 1957 television play. It went on to win a Tony Award for Best Play when it premiered on Broadway in 1959. Three years later the popular movie version starred Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. The play--about the child Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan--continues to be popular today. A Broadway revival was set to open this spring starring Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry), but the production closed before ever reaching the Great White Way.

An interesting facet of the current tour is that the role of Helen Keller's parents are played by a husband and wife (Bill Watson and Nancy Smith-Watson) and that the role of Helen Keller is played by their own 13-year-old daughter, Jordan Watson. Another daughter, Bonnie Watson, also appears.

"It's been a wonderful experience for us as a family to be in this play together," says Nancy Smith-Watson. "Audience response has been outstanding, though I've noticed many think the Kellers were bad parents. We need to remember that at that time there was no information, no ground-breaking discoveries, and they could have placed Helen in an institution. Helen Keller became a woman of stature because of the balance of love from her parents and the amazing energy of Annie Sullivan."

The company also includes its own sign-language interpreter, Libby Traynor-Torgerson, who believes wholeheartedly that she must also be an actor: "A theater interpreter must become all the characters."

A touring company of the musical Swing!, a tuneful song-and-dance show of 1940s music, plays two shows at the Sangamon Auditorium on Saturday, May 3 (2 and 8 p.m.).

Quilters didn't succeed on Broadway, but the musical about American pioneer women has been performed frequently in central Illinois over the past few years. Another incarnation is now playing at Illinois College's Sibert Theatre in Jacksonville, April 24 through 27. F. Reed Brown, founder of the Ozark Actor's Theatre in Missouri, directs the show, which features Stephanie Smith-Jarratt in the lead role (call 245-3471).

For more than 25 years, Ken Bradbury has been writing big musicals for the students at Triopia High School, and these shows have resulted in such huge crowds that they've gained an almost cult-like status. The crowds are so big people arrive two hours early just to stand in line to wait for the doors to open.

This year's musical is Samson, which runs through April 26. Bradbury has set his version of the Biblical story in the Kansas Territory, 1861 (call 457-2281 for reservations).

The show features a cast of 60 with, Bradbury says, "lots of music, comedy, dance, and tearing apart of buildings!" A.J. Wessler plays the title role.

As part of the annual Verbal Arts Festival at UIS, professor Ethan Lewis and the Verbal Arts Players will perform their adaptation of three stories from James Joyce's Dubliners on Saturday, April 26 (for more information call 206-7459, or see the story on page 15).

Next week Lincoln Land Community College is staging Jon Klein's comedy-drama Dimly Perceived Threats to the System at Brookens Auditorium on the UIS campus, May 2 and 3 at 8 p.m. and May 4 at 2 p.m. Missy Thibodeaux-Thompson directs a cast that features Lytishya Borglulm, John McAdams, Nikki Prosperini, Marla Johnson, Mary Gilmore, and Russ Herrington.

"I like this play because it takes on preconceived notions of family," says Thibodeux-Thompson, "and how the culture we live in seems to promote stereotypical roles."

On the surface the play almost seems like a sitcom, but it evolves into a tragic comedy, the kind of play that is a luxury for actors who appreciate the challenges of fleshing out characters.

A new play titled The Council has been playing in area churches over the past few weeks. Written and directed by Karen Zimmerli of Springfield, the play is told through the eyes of the apostle Peter (John Constantinides), as well as members of the Council, also known as the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish governing body at the time. The Council plays one more performance on April 27 at 7 p.m. at Palmyra Christian Church.

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