By Doug Shanaberger
If you were to watch nine-year-old Madeline Dalesio take direction from Jena Oberg during a rehearsal for Little Lake Theatre’s upcoming revival of THE MIRACLE WORKER, you’d know that W.C. Fields must have been out of his heavily-pickled mind (what … 70-odd years ago?) when he cautioned his fellow actors never to work with any children—no matter how talented they are.
Fields, by that point in his career, had endured too many days and too many nights on stage and on movie sets in the company of show business moppets, the kind usually prone to scene-stealing antics, whereas Madeline, from where I sat as an observer one Friday afternoon, hasn’t acquired the egregious habits of a pre-teen performer who’d rather misbehave than concentrate on the play.
Cast as Helen Keller in William Gibson’s powerful study of the legendary writer’s early life, she has a job to do, and she “works hard, in and out of rehearsal,” said Jena, while remaining “a very normal kid.”
“She is a sharp little girl,” Sunny Disney Fitchett, Little Lake’s artistic director, told me. “The best story I have about Madeline goes back to her initial audition for us. Kate Neubert-Lechner and I were auditioning children for Looking Glass Theatre’s production of ‘Arthur’s Halloween.’ We had advertised for children who were 8 years old and up, and she was 7. Her mom asked if it would be okay for Madeline to audition anyway. I asked if she could read, and Madeline said, ‘I read very well.’ I asked if she had prepared a song, and she smiled and nodded that she had.
“So Kate and I agreed to let her audition. She was so tiny. She stepped onstage, and when she started singing ‘There’s No Business Like Show Business,’ we almost fell over. She filled the room with her voice. She had the presence of a dynamo but with none of the ego or pretense that, sadly, sometimes comes with kids who have exceptional stage talent.
“Kate cast her as Arthur’s little sister, D.J., in ‘Arthur’s Halloween.’ Then she played Veruca Salt for me in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and Madeline in ‘Madeline’s Christmas.’ She has always been the most pleasant child to work with, and a consummate pro—alert, focused, kind, prepared and intelligent—the best qualities to find in any actor.”
And you gotta love a little girl who can belt out an Ethel Merman tune, right, even if she might not have a clue who Ethel Merman was?
On the day I watched a run-through of THE MIRACLE WORKER from the sidelines, Jena guided Madeline and actress Abby Lis-Perlis, as teacher Annie Sullivan, through two complicated scenes. In the first one, Annie calmly tries to introduce sign language to the lost-in-darkness, practically feral Helen. In the second one, a tantrum thrown by Helen at the Keller family breakfast table results in long, ultmately violent showdown between the stubborn girl and her undaunted mentor.
Jena, who will bring the finished production of THE MIRACLE WORKER to Little Lake’s stage on November 6, warned Abby and Madeline that the famous breakfast battle (with its tossed spoons, broken dishes, spilled water, kicked-over chairs and food flung in mid-air, all happening while Annie makes an attempt to wrestle the undisciplined Helen into submission) would be a “monster” to enact. She had even taken the approximately 10-minute fight apart before rehearsals began, studying the movements and determining that it’s comprised of 48 steps.
“It’s rather like a dance,” she said, but with slapping, pinching, kicking and lunging substituting for dance steps.
Many years prior to getting on the path to a career in theater, Jena took classes that were devoted to fight choreography (“a certified fight master taught us how to slap, punch, kick people in the ribs, break noses, pull hair …”), and then, much later, she staged the combat scenes in a few other plays she directed, notably “Wait Until Dark” at Little Lake. Fights scenes, she told me, almost always begin with the actors making eye contact, followed by action and reaction, THE MIRACLE WORKER being a rare exception because of Helen’s inability to see and hear.
“We’ve had to come up with other ways for the actors to indicate that they are ready for a slap or a pinch,” she explained. “For instance, Abby pats Madeline’s hand to let her know she is ready to be slapped.” (At the start of that Friday rehearsal, the director looked over to Madeline’s mom, Mary Dalesio, and kidded her, “I’m sorry I’m beating up your child!”)
THE MIRACLE WORKER brings Jena to Little Lake for the third time this season as director, after “When We Are Married” in May and “Dancing at Lughnasa” in July. While preparing for the Helen Keller-Annie Sullivan story, she had a role in “Dividing the Estate” and then she performed in the next production, “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” giving her a stress test more exhausting than the Annie-Helen brawls. She had never worked on three back-to-back productions.
Despite some anxiety about the time commitment, “I’ve always been interested in directing this play,” said Jena, whose cast also includes Bill Crean and Stacey Rosleck as Captain and Mrs. Keller, along with Jeff Johnston, Carol Lauck, Lauren Kelley, Reuben Brock, Bill Bennett, Bruce Brickner, Carly DeCock, Myra Gohring, Norah Hoyle, Lily Lauver, Sophie Lauver, Martha McElligot and Lindy Spear. “I am busy,” she added, “but it’s all working out.”
To purchase tickets for THE MIRACLE WORKER, which runs through November 22, phone Little Lake’s box office at 724-745-6300, or take advantage of the new opportunity to order tickets online.
Keep in mind that performances for student groups are on the schedule for 10 a.m., November 13 and 19.