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Three's (Too Much) Company

November 15, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The classic play and film, "The Miracle Worker," movingly dramatized teacher Annie Sullivan's remarkable efforts to communicate with and educate a 7-year-old blind, deaf and mute girl named Helen Keller.

The CBS movie, "Monday After the Miracle," based on playwright William Gibson's sequel to "Miracle Worker," picks up Keller and Sullivan's inspirational story 13 years later.

Keller (Moira Kelly) is now a 20-year-old Radcliffe College student. By her side is her beloved Sullivan (Roma Downey, who has become closer to Helen than a sister. But their relationship is tested when Sullivan marries a handsome young Harvard professor and writer, John Macy (Bill Campbell).

"To me, what was most fascinating about this piece," says Downey, "is that it was almost as if you could steal up the garden path and you pull back the curtain and kind of glimpse through a moment in time to a period that most people don't know much about in the lives of these people."

The mercurial Sullivan, who was 13 years older than Keller, is much different from Downey's character as saintly angel Monica on CBS' No. 1 dramatic series, "Touched by an Angel." The series just happens to be celebrating its 100th episode this Sunday. And that was precisely why she chose to do it on her hiatus.

"I think the appeal for me in a summer picture is to find something that allows me to hang up my wings," Downey muses, "and to stretch my arms and my legs and my talents and my range as an actress. I love my regular gig, don't get me wrong, but it's kind of fun for that month in the summer to take on a whole other guise, and no finer one would I have found this summer to take on than feisty Annie Sullivan."

But Sullivan was more than just feisty. She was, according to writer Deena Goldstone, a "terror. She was difficult and abrasive and brilliant. Much more intelligent than Helen, but very insecure and just mercurial--deep black moods and enormous zest and energy for life and just complicated. Helen wasn't. She was quite an even-tempered, sunny person."

Just as Keller needed Sullivan, Sullivan needed Helen. "I think it was sort of a subtler [need]," says Downey. "It's hard to see where one stopped and the other began. Without Helen, who was Annie? Helen gave her a sense of identity, a sense of power, a sense of herself. Helen was the child she was never going to have."

Actress Kelly, who also is starring in the new CBS series "To Have and to Hold," made a similar observation. "Annie Sullivan had created this amazing woman and sort of gave her life. Their relationship was stronger than any relationship even married couples have. You have to think of them constantly in each other's care for 50 years! You can sort of understand John Macy's frustration. There were times when he just wanted to be alone with his wife. You can sort of justify John Macy's reactions and why he had to leave."

Goldstone says that Macy was a "good guy," though references to his alcoholism were removed from the script because it "seemed to overwhelm his character." But, she says, Macy loved both Sullivan and Keller.

"He did all of this stuff for Helen," Goldstone says. "He edited all of her work. But he truly fell in love with Annie. She put him off for two years because she knew that three people couldn't be married, but she was mad for him. She adored him. When he left her, she was inconsolable."

To earn money, Keller and Sullivan went on the vaudeville circuit, where they were major attractions. Keller loved the stage; Sullivan didn't.

"They were famous for being freaks," Kelly says. "They were sort of a vaudeville freak show, at least in the beginning. People were coming to see the blind, deaf girl who could speak and communicate." But audiences, she says, quickly grew to love the two.

Keller, says Kelly, "loved the attention. She was a great traveler too, even in her older years. She met some of the most influential people in history, from Gandhi to Alexander Graham Bell. You have to sit back and sort of marvel at her success and how far she actually got."

Downey describes their lives as "glamorous. They were with Charlie Chaplin, presidents--you know, all the sort of society members of the day. Helen was a calling card and doors were opened wherever Helen went. Whenever Helen went, Annie went. They loved the good life. It was an extraordinary companionship."

They were also somewhat bohemian, as evidenced by a scene in the movie in which Sullivan has premarital sex with Macy. "I read that scene and went, 'Oh, my God!.' " Downey recalls. "We think nothing of it in a contemporary setting, but there seemed something really quite shocking [about it] in that period. Here she is dragging off her corset!"

"Monday After the Miracle" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.

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