When the 58th production of “The Miracle Worker” opens this season, some of the actors on stage will represent four generations of continuous performances of those who have portrayed Annie Sullivan and the young Helen Keller.
Elizabeth Ragsdale portrayed Sullivan in the 1987 production. Caroline Self that year portrayed Helen. This year Ragsdale will play Aunt Ev and Self will play Kate Keller, Helen's mother. Macy Ladner, who also once portrayed Helen, this year will play Sullivan. Norah Murphy has the role of Helen.
Ragsdale said she was 21 years old when she portrayed Sullivan.
“Annie was the first historical character I had ever played," she said. "In so many ways, that summer, I feel I became Annie Sullivan.”
She said Sullivan represents determination and hope, and her story can teach everyone to keep moving, reaching and believing until they are “under the strawberries.”
“This story, this play, performed at (Ivy Green) is extremely important to all of us,” Ragsdale said. “We grew up here, and although the world knows Helen Keller, she is a part of who we are, especially those of us with any connection to Ivy Green and 'The Miracle Worker.'”
Ragsdale said they have invested their hearts and souls into the play's tradition, while acknowledging how difficult some of the roles are. “The Miracle Worker” requires scenes that involve running, lifting, and fighting, especially for those portraying Helen and Sullivan. They also have to deal with the “joys” of outdoor theater – even when the weather is not ideal.
“It is all very physical and emotional, and we feel such an obligation to get everything right,” Ragsdale said. “At my age, having acted and done many productions since I was very young, first here in community theater, in New York and a bit in Paris, I know without a doubt this show is the most important one I’ve ever done. That is why I wanted to return.”
Self first portrayed Helen Keller when she joined the cast and since then, has played almost every character.
“This place and their stories have just been a huge part of my life from the time I was tiny,” Self said. “I remember when I was Helen. We would walk around the grounds before the show because as an actor you have to get in character and what better way to get into character than actually be where your character was. It’s pretty special.”
Self said when when was younger, she didn't see Kate Keller as a strong woman, but now that she has the opportunity to portray Kate, she does.
“It’s different phases of life,” she said. “I don’t think I could’ve played Kate 15 years ago. We talk about there being four generations in the show, but I think it’s really four generations of us, four generations of strong women from different perspectives.”
There is a bond formed when playing Helen and Annie that both Ragsdale and Self described as “lifelong” and extending beyond their stage roles.
Self recalled Ragsdale going with her on her first movie date at 10 years old and the boy she went with losing a tooth. Even as Ragsdale moved to New York and Paris, the distance only strengthen their friendship, they said.
“Annie (Sullivan) talks about how when she first came here she knew their souls would be intertwined forever,” Self said. “I think there is something that happens with the Helen’s and Annie’s here. Like with Elizabeth, we didn’t see each other for 30 years. It was as if no time had passed” when they were together again.
Self said the people who created this play are gone and the actors feel a responsibility to keep it going.
“For 58 years, this show has been presented here every summer and people have come from all over the world,” she said. “That is the reason they come because this place, to me, it’s hope.”