There are times even the most experienced actor struggles to remember lines. But for Adelyn Uffelman, the 10-year-old homeschooled student playing the young Helen Keller in DreamWrights' production of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," that's the least of her challenges.
In part that's because Helen, who is 6 at the time of the play, has been blind, deaf and consequently mute since infancy because of sickness. It is only after teacher Annie Sullivan - herself vision-impaired - reaches Helen through finger sign language and discipline that the girl speaks a few words.
Uffelman also found Helen's tantrums "easy."
"I do that at home without even practicing," she laughs.
On the other hand, the young actor, who earlier appeared in "Sarah Plain and Tall" at DreamWrights and in other shows at her church, has a lot of blocking to remember. And some of the struggles between the wild Helen and her teacher are quite physical.
"One rehearsal we practiced a fighting scene five times, and I was beat up and tired," Uffelman admits. "Sometimes I got brush burns or bruises, and one time I banged my head on a wooden chair. Ouch!"
But few girls would pass over the opportunity to play the younger, tormented self of Helen Keller, one of the country's beloved humanitarians and advocates for the disabled.
"The Miracle Worker" is also a challenge directors like. The play ran for nearly two years on Broadway with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke as Sullivan and Keller, respectively. Both actresses reappeared in 1962 in a movie version, winning Oscars for their performances.
After doing backstage work and acting over the course of 35-40 shows, Tim Storey is making his directorial debut with the 1959 play, based on a teleplay by Gibson two years earlier. He's thrilled Diane Crews, artistic director of DreamWrights, a York-based youth and family theater, gave him the chance.
"I had taken directing classes in college and done church dramas and one-acts, but this is my first full-length production," he says. "I've read ‘The Miracle Worker' five times, and fell in love with it."
One reason for that affection is that Helen's inability to speak in words through nearly the entire play makes for rich mining of her character's motivation.
Storey did feel some "nerves," but it was less about the play's challenges than the auditions.
"The summer pool is usually light, because kids have so much to do, but after the first night, my nerves backed down," he says. "We had so many 10- to 13-year-olds, we had to do callbacks."
Storey also appreciates the help of ForSight Vision (formerly the York County Blind Center) with the production. President Bill Rhinesmith met with the cast for a discussion about the functioning of blind people, and the organization also offered technical assistant and props.
In addition, the Eastgate Sunrise Lions Club - of which Rhinesmith is a member - is sponsoring an audio description of the play (over special headsets) and a touch tour of the stage for blind and low-visioned audience members at the 2:30 p.m. performance on Aug. 15.
Storey found unexpected assistance from Blythe Hart, the Annie of the production, who has been trained in stage combat. The cast also includes Michele Gray, Steve Brown, Trey Johnson and Chris Endres.