Miracle Worker at the Sioux City Community Theatre

Emily Hageman, left, as Annie Sullivan, and Lilly Fridge, as Helen Keller, enact the final scene of "The Miracle Worker," which opens Friday at the Sioux City Community Theatre. Photo by Ally Karsyn. 

Weekender file photo

As a teacher, Emily Hageman knows how difficult it can be to get someone to learn something entirely new, which makes it all the more satisfying when a student finally understands and gets it.

Hageman, who teaches at Siouxland Community Christian School, will translate that feeling of excitement when she’s onstage playing Annie Sullivan in Sioux City Community Theatre’s production of “The Miracle Worker.” This true story details the trials and tribulations of Sullivan as she takes on the strenuous task of teaching a young, deafblind Helen Keller.

“It’s so close to my own experience of just working, being tireless, relentless and never giving up,” said Hageman. “It’s a huge thing for her, too. She’s truly a model of a teacher.”

To fully envelope her character, Hageman learned as much as she could about Sullivan. She discovered Sullivan contracted an infectious eye disease at a young age, which left her blind for the rest of her life. At the age of 20, Sullivan landed her first teaching job and “found the person she was going to be with her entire life,” eventually leading to a mutual partnership.

The script also provided many character details. In the play, Sullivan mentions how any kinds of light hurt her eyes.

“I have these glasses that I wear and when I have the glasses I’m OK, I can still see things but not from a distance,” said Hageman. “I think Annie fights very hard to make everything be as normal as she possibly can. When she doesn’t have the glasses on, I have to remember that she’s pretty much in pain the entire time.”

That means squinting, rubbing her irritated eyes and other small actions in order to make her performance convincing to the audience. It’s the small details that matter.

“The way I portray her blindness is that up close she has pretty decent vision,” said Hageman. “Because her vision is OK up close, I think that she would really fight to appear as normal as possible and try to make as much eye contact as possible. But a lot of it is just remembering that her eyes are almost 100 percent hurting all the time. That’s kind of where the challenge comes into play.”

In the play, Sullivan helps the young Keller to overcome her hindrances. Director Joanne Fox said the play highlights the "remarkable backstory" to both of these characters who eventually become close friends for the remainder of their lives.

"You see Helen change," Fox said. "They call her a 'wild child' at the start of the show because she's undisciplined, she's spoiled, she's indulged. Why? Because the family didn't know how to handle [her]."

The young Keller is blind, deaf and unable to speak. To communicate, Sullivan would spell out words in Keller's palms. 

"That's a challenge for anybody," said Fox. "They do discipline her, teach her how to act -- but it's that moment where she finally understands the sign language translates into words. She finds the correlation between the signs in her hands and real things. That moment when she realizes it, to me, just gives me goosebumps."

Hageman knows those moments all too well when she's teaching music and theater to her own students.

"Feeling that excitement, that passion when it finally clicks with the students and finding what works and what doesn't is just the life of a teacher," she said. "You can't play a part unless you feel it. It's awesome for me that I can play a part that I can relate to so well and feel so strongly about."

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