Actress Julie Stewart has spent a lifetime backstage. But, for her, playing Annie Sullivan is different.

Actress Julie Stewart has spent a lifetime backstage.

She's lighted sets, been a stage manager and done whatever else was needed to put on great theater. The Linworth resident earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts from the Rochester Institute of Technology and, since 1997, has scored some memorable lead roles.

But, for her, playing Annie Sullivan is different.

Like the renowned educator, she works with special needs children. Like Helen Keller, Sullivan's famous charge, she is deaf.

Stewart is one of 17 blind, deaf, hearing and sighted actors tapped by the Phoenix Theatre for Children for its production of The Miracle Worker, opening Friday at the Riffe Center.

"I'm a teacher at the [Ohio School for the Deaf], so I feel a great connection with her," Stewart said, using American Sign Language through a translator. "It's an honor. I'm not so nervous now as I was in October."

You're probably familiar with the story, derived in part from Keller's autobiography.

Keller was an Alabama girl who suffered an illness that left her deaf and blind at 19 months old, and Sullivan was a visually impaired instructor at a Boston blind school who became her lifelong mentor and companion.

By finger-spelling signs onto Keller's hands and teaching her a method of touching the lips and throat of speakers, Sullivan enabled Keller to communicate with the outside world. After graduating with honors, the first deaf-blind person with a bachelor's degree traveled the world as a leading activist for people with disabilities.

You've probably never seen the story like this.

On stage, audiences will witness the script come to life with words and signs. Some deaf actors sign their lines, while a voice actor stands off to the side speaking for them; others speak and sign their lines simultaneously.

"When the lines are small or brief, it's not a problem," Stewart said. "When there's a big chunk, it can be a challenge to synchronize the signing and the voice."

Otterbein College musical theater alumna Sarah Hiance will speak and sign her part as Helen's mother - but agreed that bilingual theater can be a tough, fascinating process.

"It's more frustrating and more rewarding," said Hiance, who last year worked on Phoenix's bilingual production of The Secret Garden. "The first time I did this it took me aback, but it's really interesting to learn how deaf culture works. If you sit there and are drawn into the show, it's amazing."

By the second act, the cast hopes, its bilingual approach will seem natural - the way you forget you're reading subtitles in a really good foreign film.

"It provides another layer of meaning to everything," said Steven Anderson, who started Phoenix 16 years ago, remains its primary artistic force and is directing this play. "If you've never seen it, it's quite magical."

Because the cast draws from Columbus Public Schools' Hearing Impaired Program, the Ohio School for the Deaf and Franklin County Deaf Services, it rendered traditional stage methods obsolete.

At times Anderson had to reinvent the wheel, with methods like using a series of visual and physical cues, in addition to auditory ones. Sometimes a simple hand gesture signals someone is speaking or that a scene has finished.

"There's a bag of tricks, but frankly, it's trial and error," he said.

Phoenix has put on numerous bilingual plays over the years, but actors who suffer the same afflictions as those they portray lend The Miracle Worker a special authenticity. Anderson said it will have more resonance than ever.

"I was stunned by how contemporary the play is," he said. "We're at a time when people are inclined to be a little disempowered by finance and events they don't understand, and here's a story about the human spirit and how indomitable it is."