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Leah nails Keller role
By the time Sierra Repertory Theatre's performance of the Miracle Worker is over, audience have been pretty well convinced that its little Helen Keller is the real thing. She thrashes around defiantly in her own little world, limited by what her eyes cannot see and her ears cannot hear. Animalistic grunts and groping in her darkness help give the audience a picture of the real legendary figure.

Turlock's Leah Bateman, who is homeschooled through the Connecting Waters' Ceres office, has pulled off another convincing performance. A month ago she was stealing the show at White Christmas. Now in Columbia at the historic Fallon House, Leah and Nicole Gabriella Scipione as Annie Sullivan are pulling audiences into an amazing human drama.

"It's one of the most demanding roles for a child, ever," said Scott Viets, director of SRT. "Because she doesn't speak it's a very physical and exhausting role. There are a lot of fights between her and Annie Sullivan."

Thinking it would be difficult to find a local child for the demanding role, Viets auditioned in Los Angeles and San Francisco but was relieved to see Leah tried out. "She blew us away, again," said Viets. "She nailed it. She did her homework."

Her mother, Jonelle Bateman, said her daughter is challenged by the role. "It's not a little girl playing a little girl. It's a little girl playing a little girl with tremendous amount of obstacles, you know, trapped in a prison. She has really enjoyed that she's had to do character development and really discovered who Helen Keller was."

When she landed the role of Keller, Leah prepared by watching movies and snips on about Keller. She also walked about the house as though blind, to the amusement of her parents, Tim and Jonelle Bateman of Turlock.

Leah also learned about the modern-day Hooker family who has three triplets who are deaf and blind. Leah "became a champion of their story," said her mother, and committed to give half of her earnings from the play to the family. "It gave her a new purpose to the role beyond just playing the role and playing homage to Helen Keller but to actually be able to help some other kids who are in the same predicament that Helen Keller was in."

Exhausting scenes where Helen and Annie pit their will against each other's adds realism. Scipione picks up Leah like a rag doll to forcibly make Helen pick up items thrown on the floor. The sweat on Leah's brow is real. The role is a workout.

"What we have noticed is it's a little bit physically draining but she has a lot of energy," said Joelle Bateman. "But it's also noticeably emotionally draining." Especially in the last two minutes where she goes from being very intensely mad to surprised to sobbing. "She said it's a lot to go through in all of two minutes."

The stage production is not nearly as "dark" as the black and white film starring Patti Duke that has been aired on TV since 1962. The unique set, with its see-through walls, is dramatically framed and lit. The drama of Annie's attempts to reach Helen and break her defiant nature draws in the audience, only tolerable because, in the end a break-through is coming. Keller, of course, became an international symbol of goodwill and hope, participating in a world of movers and shakers by gently feeling their faces.

Annie clutches the audience's sympathy as she fights, too, with Keller's family members who coddle her in resignation that she will never be more than a wild and spoiled animal. Several dramatic scenes reflect the hell that Sullivan - sighted only by surgery - tasted as a blind child relegated to a care home of cast-offs where the living are among stored corpses. Ms. Scipione, a Cornell University graduate who has landed TV roles, effectively emotes Annie's determination.

If anything, "The Miracle Worker" makes one appreciate the often overlooked gift of sight.

The play continues in East Sonora through March 16. The theater will provide a special performance that will be ASL signed at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 13.

For ticket reservations, call 532-3120 or visit Sierra Repertory Theatre on line at