Dollard girl learns uncertainty, isolation as Helen Keller in Miracle Worker



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Actress Jennifer Martin who plays Kate Keller, right, and Melia Cressaty who plays Helen Keller, during the dress rehearsal of The Miracle Worker from the Lakeshore Players Dorval Theater Troupe.

Pierre Obendrauf / Montreal Gazette

When Lakeshore Players Dorval announced the auditions for The Miracle Worker, the idea was to cast a teenager, 14 to 18 years old, as a deaf and blind Helen Keller.

But when director Donna Byrne saw 11-year-old Melia Cressaty's audition for a smaller role as a blind child, she asked her to step in the role of Helen for a moment. It worked.

"I was very nervous because I had not prepared," Cressaty said.

Lakeshore Players Dorval launches its season with William Gibson's The Miracle Worker at Lakeside Academy, Thursday.

The play is based on the true story of the American activist, author and Scholar Keller, who was blind, blind at 19 months old, following a bout of what today's Doctors would probably diagnose as meningitis. The Fallout from the illness was that she became almost feral. Her tantrums were epic.

For the audition, Cressaty was asked to do one of the most physically demanding tantrum scenes from the play.

In 1903, when Keller was 22, she wrote the autobiographic story of My Life. She explained how her parents, wanting to help their frustrated and isolated daughter, contacted the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston and Hired Anne Sullivan to be their daughter's governess. Sullivan, played by Stephanie von Roritz in the Lakeshore production, eventually made a breakthrough with Keller, which made it possible for her to connect and communicate with the world.

Cressaty had no lines to learn. Instead, it's all about memorizing multiple cues – when to lash out, when to throw or grab at an object. She also had to learn how to stare blankly and move her limbs with uncertainty.

"I can not just walk normally because I can not see," Cressaty said. "And I can not just turn my head when someone speaks because I can not hear."

In the play Cressaty, as Helen, spends a good deal of time in mother Kate Keller's arms. Kate is played by Cressaty's real-life mom Jennifer Martin.

"(Helen) knew her mother loved her," Cressaty said. "Being in her arms made her feel safe."

Her real-life mom had to learn to separate reality from make-believe.

"I love to watch her," Martin said of her daughter. "But often she is reacting with her back to me, so I can not see. I've had to make the separation – we are cast mates. "

Although Martin can not break out of character to give her daughter advice during rehearsals, she has helped her prepare for the role at their home in Dollard-des-Ormeaux.

To help Cressaty to better understand Keller's isolation, Martin rearranged the living room furniture. Cressaty, who was not allowed to see the new layout, then inserted ear plugs given to her by the director, covered her eyes with a Blindfold and attempted to navigate the room.

"I did not know where anything was," Cressaty said. "I learned how to hold my arms out and move my legs."

Both Cressaty and her mother, back in the day, did school reports on Keller, so they went into the project with some understanding of the activist's accomplishments. They also watched the 1962 film starring Anne Bancroft as Sullivan and Patty Duke and Keller. Both won Oscars for their performances.

"It's inspiring," Martin said of Keller's story. "At the beginning there was no hope and yet she went on to become a Scholar and a lecturer."

AT A GLANCE

Lakeshore Players Dorval presents The Miracle Worker at Lakeside Academy, 5050 Sherbrooke St. in Lachine, Nov. 8 at 7:30 pm, Nov. 9-10 and 15-17 at 8 PM, with 2 PM matinées Nov. 11 and Nov. 17. Tickets range from $ 20 to $ 26 depending on seat location and age of the ticket holder. For reservations, call 514-631-8718 or visit www.lakeshoreplayersdorval.com.

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