Synopsis / The Miracle Worker

In 1880’s Alabama one-year-old Helen Keller was struck with a high fever. Labeled an “acute congestion of the stomach and brain,” the illness left her deaf and blind.

Five years later, Helen has grown wild and uncontrollable. She cannot see, hear, or speak. She can communicate only with gestures and with increasingly violent tantrums. Her father, Captain Arthur Keller, and her mother, Kate, have taken her to every doctor they can find, but are unable to find anyone who can cure her, or even control her behavior. Helen’s problems cause strain on the entire family. Kate has no time to spend with her new baby and Captain Keller fights constantly with Helen’s older half-brother, James. Finally they write to the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston. Mr. Anagnos, head of the school, recommends one of their best students, twenty-year-old Annie Sullivan as a governess and teacher.

Sullivan comes from poverty, and is still grieving the loss of her family, particularly her little brother, Jimmy. She herself has been blind and must wear dark glasses to protect her sensitive eyes.

Annie arrives in Tuscumbia and the clashes begin almost immediately. Captain Keller is put off by Annie’s rudeness and sharp tongue, and is doubtful of what a “half-blind Yankee schoolgirl” can accomplish where all others have failed. Annie is appalled at how spoiled Helen is, but begins education by trying to teach Helen to sign letters with her fingers. Helen is curious about the “finger game,” but fiercely resents Annie’s attempts to discipline her. The situation escalates, swiftly becoming violent as Helen physically fights Annie’s authority. The family is thrown into greater uproar than ever. Captain Keller and Kate argue about Annie’s approach. James is rude and uncooperative to everyone he deals with, as he can’t seem to get on his father’s good side.

In a last-ditch effort Annie convinces the Kellers to let her live alone with Helen in a small cottage. She reasons that Kate and Captain Keller do more harm than good because Helen can run to their loving (and lax) arms to escape from Annie’s lessons. Annie has two weeks to teach Helen in complete solitude. All this time, Annie is struggling with memories of her past that she cannot put to rest.

The experiment is a remarkable success. Helen, having no choice and nowhere to run to, has learned to behave herself and to spell many words. She knows the letters so well she even forms them in her sleep. The crucial problem is that she cannot make the connection that the words have meanings and that she can use them to communicate. The last hours at the cottage pass in a flurry of finger-spelling as Annie desperately tries to get Helen to grasp the essential point.

Annie is apprehensive at returning to the house, convinced that as soon as Helen is back at home she will resume her wild ways. This proves to be the case as Helen is scarcely home an hour before she begins throwing things and kicking. There is a brief stand-off, but the Kellers cannot resolve themselves to allow Annie to discipline Helen. Finally, Annie drags Helen off to the water pump to make her refill the pitcher she dumped. Captain Keller is about to stop her, but James finally stands up and tells him to let Annie do her work.

At the water pump Annie makes Helen pump water and begins spelling the word with her fingers. Finally, Helen somehow manages to make the connection that the letters W-A-T-E-R mean the water. With this barrier at last overcome, Helen is able to begin using the words she can spell to communicate. The Kellers are overjoyed to be able to speak with their daughter, and Annie feels that she has finally overcome the personal demons she has been battling.