By Phoebe Doscher, News Editor
I bundled up in four layers of clothing on Friday night to brave the brisk, fall weather and attend a performance of Gettysburg College Theatre Arts Professor Susan Russell’s original play Twin Hearts, in its world premiere weekend at the Gettysburg Community Theatre.
But the cast, along with Russell herself, who starred as Helen Keller’s mother Kate and managed the show’s props, costumes, projections, and (in part) the sound design, rendered even my cozy flannel unnecessary. The show was a heartwarming and charming performance.
Russell finished the play in 2018 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Helen Keller’s death. Russell said she based the play on the same materials William Gibson used in his play, The Miracle Worker, but in a “more historically accurate” manner. The story closely follows the relationship between Helen Keller and her famed teacher, Annie Sullivan, who led the deaf-blind girl to unlock her intellectual potential and push the boundaries of ability in America’s late 1800s, early 1900s society.
I was impressed by the simple, yet versatile set, painted, in part, by Gettysburg College’s own Theatre Arts faculty member and costume shop supervisor Juls Buhrer. The set comprised three levels indicating various locations, as well as an array of chairs, tables, and a desk. The actors themselves seamlessly moved the props and set pieces during the blackouts. Some of the scene changes required close attention to detail as they gathered the props that had been scattered around as a result of Helen’s outbursts or Annie’s physical display of pent-up frustration.
The intimate, 80-seat theatre, which was almost completely sold out, beneficially gave audience members a close-up look at the actor’s expressions.
The performance included a diverse age range of actors as the narrative followed Annie and Helen from youth to adulthood. Child actors, many of whom attend Gettysburg Area Middle School, portrayed the younger characters in the play, acted as schoolgirls, and narrated the passage of time during scene changes while adults, including local high school students, portrayed the older characters.
Director and set designer Shane Miller also gave a compelling performance as Michael Anagnos, headmaster of the Perkins School for the Blind, where Annie, and later Helen, attended. Stage manager Sarah Kirk also played the role of Ethel.
Blayne Miller created a convincing performance of the frustrated Helen in the early stages of her work with Annie. Some of their scenes included moments of stage fighting, which were choreographed by Anna Kurtz.
Abigail Alonso assumed the mature version of Helen with a balance of composure and stubbornness. In her penultimate stage moment, Alonso proudly portrayed Helen, donned in a cap and gown, graduating from Radcliffe College with her teacher at her side.
Hailey Brownley made a commendable portrayal of Annie Sullivan, consistently referred to as “spitfire” by characters in the play. Kalin Hodenmaker, the child version of Annie Sullivan, beautifully set the stage for Brownley to inhabit Annie in adulthood. Hodemaker established the quick-witted, fast-talking, defiant girl through her adolescence, coming from a poor family—partially blind—and attending Perkins School where she graduated top of her class and eventually brought Helen for schooling as well.
Brownley told Annie’s story with dogged persistence from start to finish, delivering a clear Irish brogue and commanding both Helen, her pupil, and the antagonistic characters standing in her way—namely dominant male figures—with clear resolve. From my front row seat, a mere five feet away from the edge of the thrust stage, I could see her shake and heave, as she attempted to maintain patience in the high-pressure environment of an overworked teacher, and even wipe actual tears from her cheeks as she exited the stage.
Helen’s disabilities created a substantial roadblock for communication with the audience, which the company skillfully accounted for. While the actresses who played Helen pressed words and letters into the palms of their cast-mates or held Helen’s finger to their lips to interpret their words, Julianna Hazlett voiced Helen from the wings. This technique provided insight into Helen’s inner journey to mental enlightenment and clearly dictated Helen’s stances on certain issues as the story progressed.
Wendee Lewis provided voiceovers for Lauraday Kelley’s character, Laura Bridgeman, a woman who serves as young Annie’s introduction to a deaf-blind individual at Perkins.
Each Annie-Helen actress duo played off the other with palpable camaraderie. The girls grappled with scenes of tension, frustration, and physical aggression, contrasted by tender moments where they joked, engaged intellectually, and supported one another – their “twin hearts” strung together by invisible string.
Russell and Davis Hurlbert gave convincing performances as Helen’s parents, joined by Garrett Adams ’22, who played Helen’s half-brother James Keller, as they both resisted and cooperated with Annie’s strategic scheme to successfully teach Helen and uncover her true potential. Miller and Amanda Wetzel, portraying Michael and Julia Anagnos, directors at the Perkins School, exceptionally showcased their commanding yet nurturing stance towards the two girls throughout their intellectual journeys. Also notable were Ronald C. Jones as the defiant Uncle Frank and Mike Krikorian’s Arthur Gilman, both powerful antagonist roles to Annie.
The witty script balanced comedic breaks with moments of tenderness or tension, whether that derived from war, talk of slavery, or conversations of Helen’s treatment. Vanessa Ann Davis, portraying Viney, the Keller family’s housekeeper, elicited laughs from the audience by merely raising her eyebrows in sarcastic skepticism of the family before quickly reverting to the harrowing talk of slave practices and discrimination in the South.
The actors carefully traversed the complex, well-composed character arcs. Brownley’s consistent dedication to Helen and calculated movements showed that of an overworked teacher trying to go against the grain and defy slavery and gender inequality. Miller and Alonso rounded out Helen’s arc in tandem, which required some insightful moments of clarity in their lessons. These were made apparent to the audience when the lights dimmed on the onstage action and Helen was bathed in a lone spotlight, Hazlett’s ghost-like voiceover narrating the girl’s discoveries, including Helen’s first object-word association at a water pump.
Russell exquisitely crafted a compelling and enthralling retelling of the story of Annie and Helen, turning their recognizable history into an engaging, seamless theatrical narrative.
In hindsight, perhaps bundling up in four layers was a bit excessive. But, it was well worth it to brave the cold and witness the beautiful performance and inspiring tale of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
Twins Hearts will conclude its world-premiere run this weekend with shows on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
This review is also published in the Gettysburg Connection.