This play, The Miracle Worker, is set in the 1880’s. It follows the Keller family and their struggles with their daughter Helen, who is deaf, mute and dumb; and Anne Sullivan, a young teacher.
The plot begins at night on a plantation in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Kate and Captain Keller, along with a doctor, are standing next to a crib, discussing how the Keller’s daughter, Helen, survived a difficult ailment. The sickness that she had nearly killed her. As the Captain escorts out the doctor, Kate notices that something is awry with the baby. She assumes that because of the illness, Helen is now unable to see or hear.
In the next scene, we see that Helen has grown up a little. She is around six years old, and is now the king of the house. She terrorizes everyone in the house, and she gets away with it all because no one knows how to discipline her. Further inspection shows that they would rather spoil her with treats, in a similar manner to the way one would train a dog. The Captain and Kate are arguing, mainly about what to do with Helen. We discover that they have hired many doctors to attempt to help her, but to no avail. The Captain believes that hiring more would simply be a waste of time and money, and would rather accept her tedious nature. Kate, however, is steadfast, and won’t give up on her daughter. He finally relents, and they decide on Anne Sullivan, a governess from Massachusetts.
In the next scene we see Anne packing and preparing to leave the Perkins Institute for the Blind, where she was not only a patient, but seemingly a teacher as well. She is young at 20, and haunted by visions of her younger brother Jimmie. He died as they were separated from each other at an orphanage, and the memory of that constantly visits her. When she gets to Alabama, the family is a little apprehensive about her, mainly because of her age and her stubborn attitude. When she meets Helen, she immediately drags her upstairs, eager to get to work. She tries to quell the child’s tantrums by spelling into Helen’s hands whenever she wants something, namely ‘cake’ and ‘doll’. But Helen outsmarts her, hitting Anne in the face with the doll and locks her in the room. Anne is forced to give in and ask for help, and climbs out the window by ladder. After they eat dinner, Anne spots Helen at the water pump and well, where the girl drops the key to Anne’s room down the well. Rather than getting mad, Anne smiles and goes back inside the house.
As the curtain opens up in act 2, Helen is wreaking havoc on Anne’s room. With every item that Helen breaks, Anne forces her hand into the girl’s palm, spelling out each item. Kate, confused, asks her why she keeps doing it, that the girl is only mimicking her, not actually learning. Anne claims that she wants Helen to understand that everything has a name, and once she gets there, she will be able to learn. When prodded further, she simply responds “I like to hear myself talk.” That night, Anne is visited once again by her tough past with the orphanage and her departure from her brother.
At breakfast the next morning, Helen starts her daily routine of self-propelled terror. Anne won’t let this fly, sparking a conflict between the Captain and Anne. She wants the child to learn in general, to learn manners as well as language, and the Captain believes she’s overstepping her bounds. Anne wins, and the rest of the family begrudgingly head outside. The fight that ensues between Anne and Helen is a long one of epic proportions, but it results in a victory: Anne got Helen to eat with a spoon, and she got her to fold her napkin.
The victory is short-lived, however, as the Captain wants Anne out of his house, not supporting her methods and treatment of his daughter. Kate and Auntie Ev convince him to let her stay a little longer, and the family strikes a deal with Anne, who wants to isolate herself and Helen from the rest of the world. The idea behind it, she explains, is to make Helen completely dependent on her for everything, so that she doesn’t have her parents and family to hide behind. The Kellers drive Helen around for awhile to confuse her, then take her back to the yard, where a garden house appears. Helen isn’t excited about living with Anne, and throws a fit, not allowing Anne to touch her. Anne lures her out, however, by spelling words into the hand of a servant, and Helen starts to trust her again. As she falls asleep, the curtain drops on act 2 while Anne sings to her.
Act 3 begins with an immediate realization for the audience that the week of separation is nearing to an end. Anne is getting frustrated, because Helen doesn’t seem to be finding the meaning behind the signs, and still thinks of it as a game. She has memorized signs, but doesn’t seem to be connecting them to the thought that they have names and represent real concepts. The family is excited over the progress she’s made, and believe that she should come back inside and live with them. Anne begs them to let the separation continue, that she is on the verge of a major breakthrough, but the family misses their daughter too much, and demands that she move back inside, sure that she will still learn. Anne keeps Helen until six, the exact time that they had planned on before, desperately trying to get Helen to move past the games and move into understanding, but we watch as Helen remains steadfast, and Anne grow frustrated and nearly breaks down.
Once returned back to her home, Helen regains control. Despite Anne’s warnings that she’s just testing them, and the family’s assertions that they wouldn’t indulge in her little games, they start to baby her again, and Anne watches as a lot of her work is slowly being destroyed. Helen throws a pitcher of water at Anne, and Anne is fed up. She grabs Helen, dragging her to the water pump to force her to refill the pitcher. The Captain rises to stop her, but James, his stepson, finally stands up to his father, and explains to the family that they need to trust her and let her do her work.
In the yard, Anne has the water pump running, and angrily spells out ‘water’ into Helen’s palm. As if someone turned on a switch inside of her, Helen understands. She has the breakthrough that Anne had been searching for. She flies about, touching things, begging to know their names. Anne obliges, in tears, and calls out for the family to come see. As they come into the scene, she rushes up to them, demanding what words are associated with them, and learns ‘mother’ and ‘father’. Then she rushes back to Anne, wanting to know her title. Anne shows her ‘teacher.’ Helen, in a seemingly understanding gesture, retrieves the keys from her mothers side and gives them to Anne. The play ends with Anne writing down in her journal “I love Helen…forever and ever.”