A life spent as a 'Miracle' worker

Where in the body does eloquence live?

A dancer communicates with her flashing feet, an actor with eyes that are haunted or merry, a politician with a tongue of brass and a physicist with a brain full of complicated formulas.

For the last four decades, Lyndi Patton-Gura has spoken most eloquently with her hands.

They flutter up as she chats with you, like birds that can't sit still in the nest of her lap. They interpret the words of hearing performers who speak from stages and deaf people who wish to speak through a video relay.

And from time to time, they assist a company doing William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker," as they will this month at Matthews Playhouse.

The eloquence of those slim fingers comes from an accident of geography. Had Patton-Gura grown up 100 miles north or south of her Alabama home town, her life might never have entwined with that of Helen Keller, the deaf and blind activist of the 20th century.

But little Lyndi Patton was born in Tuscumbia, while its most famous native daughter was alive and internationally respected. Eight-year-old Lyndi played Helen in "Miracle Worker," the story of Keller's first comprehension of speech, at the great woman's girlhood home in the 1970s. (That birthplace, Ivy Green, stages the play each year.) Ever since, her work and activism and the Tony-winning drama have been interwoven - including an appearance in a musical version of Keller's life, "The World In Her Hands," in Brooklyn. (The main character sang thoughts in her head.)

Patton-Gura is playing the small role of Viney, a servant in the Kellers' initially chaotic household, in Matthews. But director June Bayless says her value can't be measured by her part.

"When Lyndi auditioned, I looked over her experience as an actress and asked why she wanted to be in the show again. She just loves it and wants to spread the word about it," says Bayless..

"Your first impression is that she's strikingly beautiful. Then you see her boundless positive energy, as if she has all these things she wants to do and has a short time to accomplish them. She's always upbeat, encouraging other actors. She helped us reach out to the deaf community as an audience, taught the cast sign language and found sign language interpreters we could afford."

An article from Patton-Gura's hometown paper shows she was just as zestful at 8. By the time she played Helen, she had taken part in school plays at Our Lady of the Shoals Catholic School, represented the area in the state's Little Miss contest, won dozens of swimming competitions, taken art class and was preparing to study piano and ballet.

Lyndi Patton used to stage plays at her house as an elementary schooler, hanging a blanket off the porch to serve as a curtain and handling the advertising and ticket sales herself. Small wonder, then, that she headed to New York City with a one-way ticket at 18.

But even as she contemplated an acting career, she knew she also wanted to work with the disabled.

A call to dedication

"We had autism and deafness on both sides of my family," she says. "My cousin was born with spina bifida; I saw how she struggled, how she was excluded from so many things in life.

"My best friend growing up, Alex Wilhite, was deaf. He was discouraged (in school) from using sign language, even shamed for it. But his parents believed in him, and he went on to be a famous abstract artist. I found his story inspiring."

So she majored in deaf education and sign language interpretation at LaGuardia College in New York, then began to run a career along parallel lines.

She paid the rent by appearing in soap operas (recurring roles in "All My Children" and "Another World"), by becoming a spokesmodel for Revlon, by planning and performing in Redbook workout videos.

She paid herself back by doing an internship at Helen Keller National Center on Long Island, where deaf-blind people learn to lead independent lives, or by convincing acclaimed teacher Jacques D'Amboise to incorporate disabled kids into dance performances at Madison Square Garden.

"Dance really is the universal language," she says. "He saw (my commitment) was real and agreed to start courses at St. Francis School for the Deaf. Then I thought, 'Why not bring in blind kids, too? They could touch hands, touch shoulders. So we started teaching at Lighthouse for the Blind.

"By performance time, you couldn't tell who was deaf, blind, couldn't speak English - everyone was a dancer. The life of Helen Keller inspired me to think outside the box that way."

A dynamo in Mecklenburg

When the family moved to Charlotte eight years ago from New York, leaving a city devastated by the attacks on the World Trade Center, she says she "made a pact with myself that my life would be more about the children. I thought, 'I want a minivan and a house in a cul-de-sac.' " (She and David Gura, an architect-developer, have two sons: Tyler, 16, and Luke, 11.)

"I also wanted to immerse myself in the deaf community. So when I saw Matthews Playhouse was doing 'Miracle Worker,' I thought, 'I have to.' It was full circle for me, something on my bucket list to do again before I leave this world."

Her immersion was all but complete without that. She has staged a circus with disabled kids of all sorts at Cotswold Elementary School, guided couples through prenatal care and birth, worked with a deaf ministry team at Calvary Church, signed regularly for Children's Theatre of Charlotte (she'll do a matinee of "Seussical" Oct. 22), made sign-language videos such as "Signs at the Zoo" and worked for Sorenson Video Relay Service.

"Sometimes kids call home from college, sometimes it's a 911 emergency; and sometimes people just want a pizza," she says. "Sometimes you have to get somebody translating into Spanish. When the call goes through, all of a sudden that deaf person has wings."

She doesn't regret leaving New York and smiles when she speaks of "beschert," a Yiddish word suggesting things happen for a reason.

"I didn't want to be a star," she says. "I wasn't talented enough to get leads, the big roles I would really like to have done. I think I'm where God wants me to be.

"The question to ask is, 'Is the world a different place when you leave?' Did you make a difference in the lives of children who were told they wouldn't be able to communicate, much less dance at Madison Square Garden?"