Photo Credit: Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic
Let's say you're producing a play (or a movie or a TV show) about a real-life hero with severe disabilities. Should you cast a disabled actor in the part, or should you go with an established star who must pretend to be disabled?
That's the question being raised by the Alliance for the Inclusion in the Arts upon hearing the news that Abigail Breslin has been cast as Helen Keller. The 13-year-old Oscar-nominated actress will be playing Keller, the deaf and dumb girl who became a famous author and activist, in a Broadway revival of The Miracle Worker this winter.
"We do not think it’s O.K. for reputable producers to cast this lead role without seriously considering an actress from our community," a representative from the disabled artists' association told The New York Times. "I understand how difficult it is to capitalize a new production on Broadway, but that to me is not the issue. There are other, larger human and artistic issues at stake here."
One of the show's producers, with some seriously un-PR-friendly cynicism, responded: "It’s simply naïve to think that, in this day and age, you’ll be able to sell tickets to a play revival solely on the potential of the production to be a great show... I would consider it financially irresponsible to approach a major revival without making a serious effort to get a star."
The Miracle Worker started out as a 1957 TV movie, based on Keller's memoirs of her childhood teacher Anne Sullivan. It was then adapted into a Broadway play starring Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan, both of whom won Oscars when they reprised their roles for the 1962 film. Three subsequent TV movies were made -- and as Screencrave points out, not once did a deaf or blind actress play Keller.
We're excited to see Breslin, a talented young actress, meet the formidable challenge of playing Keller. But it's genuinely sad that no disabled actresses meet the Broadway producers' star wattage requirements. Even sadder, we can only think of two prominent deaf actresses, both of whom gained fame for the same role in Children of a Lesser God: Phyllis Frelich on Broadway, and Marlee Matlin in the film adaptation.