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Helen Keller

Cassandra LaRocco as Helen Keller and Jessica Mae Murphy as Annie Sullivan in a scene from ‘The Miracle Worker’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

By Heidi Sutton

Currently playing on Theatre Three’s Mainstage is William Gibson’s play “The Miracle Worker,” the compelling story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. Directed by Bradlee Bing, the show is leaving a lasting impact on all who are fortunate enough to see it. One of the standout performances is from Cassandra LaRocco who plays a young Helen. The 11-year-old from Brentwood captures the audience’s heart with her powerful performance. 

I recently had the opportunity to interview Cassandra about her Theatre Three debut and her challenging new role.

How did you get interested in acting?

Since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed entertaining people and finding different ways to make people laugh. I found that it was fun to try and mimic the different characters on many of the TV shows I watched when I was younger. When my parents took me to see “Annie” on Broadway in 2013, I felt that I wanted to be just like the actors on that stage so I started taking acting classes, along with my dance classes, and found that I loved getting the chance to perform for an audience.

Why did you decide to audition for this role?

I decided to audition for this role because it seemed extremely interesting and I thought it would be a good learning experience. I knew it would be a challenge for me since most of my prior stage acting experience had been with musicals, where I got to sing and dance. 

Cassandra LaRocco as Helen Keller and Jessica Mae Murphy as Annie Sullivan in a scene from ‘The Miracle Worker’ Photo by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.

Were you familiar with Helen Keller?

Yes, I wrote a book report about Helen’s life in fifth grade. I knew that she was an amazing woman who lost her sight and hearing at a very young age but learned to communicate with people by using finger spelling. She inspired so many people by showing how a person with disabilities can make a difference in the world. 

How did you prepare for this role? 

First, I watched the movie with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke. I focused on the different expressions used by Patty Duke as she portrayed Helen, and then tried to figure out my own way to express what Helen must have felt when she wasn’t able to communicate her thoughts. Then I focused on not letting the sights and sounds around me be distracting. Each time I rehearsed with the cast at Theatre Three, I would clear my mind and only think of Helen and being in her world.

How do you enjoy working with the cast?

I really enjoy working with this cast because everyone is so much fun to be around and is extremely talented. Everyone has worked so hard, and I am proud to be part of the team.

What is it like working with the director?

I really enjoy working with Bradlee Bing. He explained to me very well how to portray the challenging role of Helen and he made me feel confident in my performance. Being in “The Miracle Worker” is an experience I will remember always, and I thank Bradlee for this wonderful opportunity.

Do you ever get nervous before the show?

I get nervous before each show, but once the show begins and I focus on being in my role, I get less nervous. Being on stage with the other actors and knowing that we worked so hard together helps me to feel confident each time I do a performance.

What is your favorite scene? 

My favorite scene is the food fight scene performed before the end of Act 1 with Jessica Murphy who plays Annie Sullivan. I enjoy it because of all the action that takes place and because it is really challenging. In this scene, Helen is extremely frustrated by the changes around her and not knowing how to express her thoughts. I get to portray this frustration by acting out in a temper tantrum, throwing spoons, spitting food, climbing the table, and trying to escape the room but I am locked in. I physically have to move around the stage a lot, but have to still behave as if I can’t see anything in front of me.

Do you think children should come see this show?

Yes, I do think children should come see the show because they can learn that despite the disabilities Helen Keller had, she was able to learn different ways to communicate her feelings and thoughts. If children learn about Helen Keller at a young age, maybe they can be inspired by what she accomplished, and it could help them to learn to never give up when they are in a difficult situation.

Have you taken any acting classes?

I have been attending classes and performing plays at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. I also take voice lessons at Cristina Music Studio in Huntington, and I have been taking dance lessons since I was 3. I currently practice ballet, tap, jazz, lyrical and pointe at June Claire Dance Studios in Babylon.

What other shows have you been in?

I played the role of July in “Annie” at the Engeman Theater in 2017 and over the past holiday season, I was a dancer in “The Nutcracker” at the Cultural Arts Playhouse in Syosset where I played one of Drosselmeyer’s dolls, and also performed in the scenes for Snowflakes, Arabian Coffee and Flowers.  Last fall, I performed as Andrina, one of Ariel’s sisters, in “The Little Mermaid Jr.” at the Engeman.

How do you feel when you get a standing ovation?

I feel happy because people enjoyed the show and my performance. It means to me that the audience made a connection with the story we are telling up on the stage, and that hopefully it will be something they remember for a long time.

What advice would you give to other kids who want to try acting?

Follow your dreams. You will meet many other kids and teachers who will make you feel confident. As you learn from others, you will become less and less nervous, and have more and more fun.

What is your favorite part about this show?

My favorite part has been meeting new people who helped me to be a better performer, and learning about what Helen Keller had to go through to understand our world without seeing or hearing. It has taught me to think of the differences that people may have, but that when people work together and have patience, almost any difficult situation can be overcome. 

Why should people come see the show?

People should come see “The Miracle Worker” because they get to experience how difficult Helen’s world was when she was young, and how it all changed when Annie Sullivan came to teach her. It gives people the opportunity to relate to Helen Keller and to realize that without someone that was a dedicated teacher who was not willing to give up, Helen may have been trapped forever in a dark and silent world. The play is about facing challenges and showing how people can help each other and change the world for the better.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Miracle Worker” through April 28. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. The Mainstage season closes with “The Wizard of Oz” from May 18 to June 22. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 and up. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

‘The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects.’   — Helen Keller

By Heidi Sutton

Theatre Three continues its 49th season with William Gibson’s beautiful play “The Miracle Worker,” the inspirational story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan.

Born in Alabama in 1880, Helen Keller was afflicted with an unknown illness (possibly scarlet fever) at the age of 19 months that left her deaf, blind and mute. By the age of 7, she had become frustrated in her dark and silent world and frequently threw tantrums to get what she wanted. 

In a final attempt to help her before having her institutionalized, her parents reached out to the Perkins School for the Blind, which sent its top student, 20-year-old Annie Sullivan, to live with the family and teach the child sign language. Helen would later recount that the day she met Sullivan was her “soul’s birthday.”

Expertly directed by Bradlee E. Bing (“12 Angry Men”), the dramatic production keeps the audience fixated from the beginning — a darkened stage where we hear Helen’s parents realize what has happened to their baby — to the final climactic water-pump scene where we all feel a lump in our throats.

From the moment Sullivan arrives, Helen is determined to fight her every step of the way. Used to being spoiled, she sees no need to learn the alphabet or eat with a utensil. The tumultuous relationship between teacher and pupil is played out in the physically violent scenes choreographed by Steven Uihlein. Forks and spoons and plates of food are often strewn about the stage, and the two often engage in outright brawls on the floor. It is exhausting to watch but also succeeds in revealing Sullivan’s determination to show Helen how to communicate through “a light of words.”

Not making any headway and with constant interference from the family, Sullivan moves Helen to the seclusion of the garden shed. Given only two more weeks to make a breakthrough, she tells the girl, “Now I have to teach you one word — everything.”

Eleven-year-old Cassandra La Rocco is superb as Helen, while Jessica Mae Murphy (“The Addams Family”) is outstanding as Sullivan in the roles made famous by Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft.

The supporting cast is equally impressive, with powerful performances by Michael Newman as Helen’s Civil War veteran father, Captain Keller; Susan Emory as her overindulgent mother, Kate; Eric J. Hughes as the half-brother James; Linda Pentz as Aunt Ev; and Cameron Turner and Meredith Szalay as servants Percy and Viney.

The elaborate set by Randall Parsons; costumes by Teresa Matteson and Toni St. John; and lighting design by Stacey Boggs tie everything together to produce a wonderful evening at the theater. The standing ovation on opening night was well deserved. Don’t miss this show. It will leave a lasting impact on your heart and soul.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson will present “The Miracle Worker” through April 28. Running time is 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission. The Mainstage season closes with “The Wizard of Oz” from May 18 to June 22. Tickets are $35 adults, $28 seniors and students, $20 children ages 5 and up. For more information or to order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Photos by Peter Lanscombe, Theatre Three Productions Inc.