The play opens in the Keller home as a doctor examines a young child named Helen. Helen’s mother, Kate Keller, and Helen’s father, Captain Arthur Keller, look on with tired eyes. The doctor says, “She’ll live,” and a wave of relief washes over the room.
As Arthur walks the doctor to his buggy, Kate leans over the crib to comfort Helen, but she quickly realizes something is wrong. Frantically, Kate screams to Arthur for help as she waves her hands over Helen’s face and yells her name. When Arthur rushes in, he examines the child and realizes Helen cannot see or hear. The lights dim, and the sound of chimes move time forward.
The lights rise, signifying five years have passed. Helen, six and a half years old, is described as “unkempt.” She is accompanied by her dog, Belle, and two black children named Martha and Percy, who are playing with paper dolls.
Helen thrusts her hands at their faces, trying to understand the movement of their mouths. Percy notices Helen is trying to talk, as she reaches for her own lips. She becomes so frustrated that she bites her fingers. Martha tries to stop her from hurting herself, but this enrages Helen, who pins Martha down and grabs the scissors. Percy rings a bell for help.
Inside, Kate rocks the cradle of baby Mildred; Arthur is reading; Aunt Ev, Arthur’s sister, is knitting; and James, Arthur’s son from a previous marriage, sits quietly. When Kate hears the bell, she runs outside and pulls Helen off Martha.
Kate brings Helen inside, and Ev gives Helen a towel doll she made for her to calm her down. Helen examines the doll and realizes it has no facial features. She taps on the face to show the missing eyes, but no one understands the gesture. Helen rips two buttons off Ev’s dress and gives them to Kate. Ev is angry, but Kate realizes what Helen wants—eyes for her doll. As Kate sews the eyes on the doll, Ev realizes Helen has the ability to reason.
The group looks at Helen as she rocks the towel baby in her arms, but the mood quickly shifts when Helen overturns the cradle holding Mildred. Thankfully, Arthur catches the baby before she hits the floor as Helen places her towel baby in the crib. Arthur wants to punish Helen, but Kate explains she can’t understand punishment. Kate holds Helen in her arms until the lights fade.
The audience hears a man’s voice with a Greek accent. The man, Anagnos, is from the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. He says Dr. Bell believes “the girl” can be taught and that they will send a woman named Annie Sullivan, a working-class Irish girl and Perkins graduate, to help. Annie, a woman of twenty, sits with her eyes shut. Her eyes have been sensitive to light since she contracted trachoma as a child, which left her blind for several years until multiple surgeries corrected the issue.
Anagnos says Annie doesn’t have tact or talent, but she could help “the girl.” He gives Annie an advance in pay and a garnet ring. Annie emotionally breaks down, remembering how heartbroken she was when her brother, Jimmie, died. Perkins gave her a second chance at life.
A group of blind children enter the room and bring Annie a pair of smoked glasses to help protect her eyes, because she’s going where “the sun is fierce.” The children have also bought Helen a doll.
The children leave, and Annie is left alone. She sits on the ground holding the doll as...
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the light shifts, signifying a past memory. The audience hears a boy’s voice call to Annie. In real time, Anagnos calls from offstage, breaking Annie’s trance. She yells, “Coming!” as the lights slowly rise on the Keller home.
Kate, accompanied by a black servant named Viney, eagerly waits for Annie upstairs in what will be Annie’s room. She tidies up Helen and gives her a peppermint drop. Meanwhile, Arthur heads to the porch to read and finds James lounging. Arthur reminds him of his chores, but James tells Arthur that taking Kate to the train is his chore. When Kate comes downstairs, they head to the train station.
Upstairs, Helen touches her cheek, a gesture that means she wants Kate. Viney gives her a teacake and tries to explain that her mother left. Helen heads downstairs, and when she finds Arthur, she makes the same gesture. Arthur awkwardly touches her head, but Helen pulls away. He makes a comment about none of his children liking him and gives her candy.
The lights rise on the railroad station where Annie waits. Kate enters and is troubled by Annie’s appearance, telling her she expected a “desiccated spinster.” She questions Annie’s ability to help Helen, but Annie’s cheerful tone soothes Kate’s troubles. She tells Kate that her youth is an advantage and shares her past medical issues.
The group arrives at the Keller home, and Arthur welcomes Annie, but Annie immediately asks for Helen. She yanks her suitcase from Arthur’s hands and walks toward Helen on the porch. She purposely drops the suitcase with a heavy hand to get Helen’s attention. Helen goes to the suitcase, then to her. They have a brief interaction before Helen grabs the suitcase and lugs it upstairs to the “new room.”
Annie’s behavior upsets Arthur; he questions her age and upbringing. Kate explains she was the valedictorian of her class and tells him about her eyes. James makes a comment about having “two of them” and is quickly chided by Arthur.
Upstairs, Annie gives Helen a key to open her suitcase. Helen finds the doll and adores it. As she plays, Annie spells out the letters of the word “doll” on Helen’s hand. James asks if they are playing a game, but Annie explains she’s teaching Helen the alphabet. James says Helen has no idea what she’s doing, but Helen begins to mimic Annie’s gestures.
Annie removes the doll until Helen can spell the word back to her, but this upsets Helen. She slaps Annie, but Annie remains patient, waiting for Helen to spell it out. James continues his negative commentary as Helen becomes more violent. Annie grabs Helen’s wrists to stop her from throwing punches and only releases them to slam the door in James’s face.
Annie takes a piece of cake from her bag and gives it to Helen. She spells the word “cake” in Helen’s hand, and Helen repeats it. She then gives Helen the doll back, and miraculously, Helen starts to spell the word “doll,” but just as Annie begins to celebrate, Helen swings the doll and hits Annie in the face, causing her to lose a tooth. As she runs to the mirror, Helen takes the doll and locks Annie in her room. James is the only one who knows Annie is trapped. Annie begins to hear the boy’s voice again as she waits alone.
Kate yells that supper is ready, and Arthur tells James to fetch Annie. James reveals that Helen locked Annie in her room. The group, furious that James kept this information to himself, sends Viney to go find Helen, but upon examination, Helen doesn’t have the key.
Arthur calls for a ladder and brings Annie down from her window. She tries to remain composed and confident as Arthur chides her. While the Kellers go back inside, Annie walks toward Helen, who is at the well. Helen feels around to see if anyone is there, but Annie evades her. She watches curiously as Helen removes the key from her mouth and drops it in the well. Annie is pleased and finds deep respect for Helen in this moment. She tells Helen that she accepts her challenge because she has “nothing else to do” and “nowhere to go.”