"The Miracle Worker" by William Gibson is based on Helen Keller's first discovery that words, and that most famous word of all for Helen Keller, "W-A-T-E-R," have the potential to release Helen from her isolation and non-communicative relationships, especially with her family.
The main setting of the play is the Keller's home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, USA when Helen is six years old and Annie Sullivan comes to tutor Helen, much against her father's and her brother James's better judgement. Everything takes place here, most of it during a short space of time, although the beginning of the play provides the context. It reveals that Helen was ill as a baby and is now blind and deaf, with no means of communication and only her family's pity. Consequently, Helen is unmanageable, and, according to her brother, belongs in an asylum, for, as her father puts it, "mental defectives."
The time period is the late nineteenth century and this helps the audience or reader understand how difficult it is to find anyone suitable to help Helen during a time when physical and mental disabilities are largely misunderstood and asylums provide most of the care facilities, regardless of the disability. Asylums (from this era) have a reputation for being terrible places, as there was no medication or alternatives for helping sufferers who were often locked away and kept in terrible conditions. This aspect of the setting reveals how Annie Sullivan effectively saves Helen from her fate.
What is also remarkable in terms of the historical and geographical aspect of the setting and Annie's success with Helen is that Helen's father, Captain Keller, mistrusts Annie for several reasons; her youth, her own partial sight, and particularly, the fact that she is "from a part of the country where people are–women, I should say--"more forthright than the typical southern women." He almost sends Annie "back to Boston" because he dislikes what he sees as "insolent" behavior. He does not expect women to be so opinionated.
Helen goes on, with Annie's help, to become hugely successful and a role model for so many people, with and without disability. Her legacy endures, even in the twenty-first century.
The Miracle Worker is set in the late 1880s, after the Civil War, just after the Reconstruction, a period in the South that was full of chaos and turmoil and change. Southerners like Captain Keller would harbor deep resentments towards the North.
The setting is significant to the story, because Captain Keller does not accept Anne Sullivan as Helen's teacher because she is from the North. It was a very sensitive issue for men of the South, like the Captain, to accept the presence of a Yankee in his house.
"From the beginning, Captain Keller establishes himself as a man of the South while he is discussing the Battle of Vicksburg with his son James during Annie's first breakfast with the Keller's."
The physical setting is the Keller home in Alabama.