What do you do when your show is cast, rehearsal is just weeks away and then the publishing house pulls the rights to the performance? If you're Bob Kempf, you work a "Miracle."

When "The Miracle Worker" opens Friday at The Empty Space, it will be a testament to a dedicated team that banded together under the guidance of Kempf, the theater's artistic director.

Plans for the show originally slated for the spot, "Hair," hit a snag late in the process.

"Several theaters across the country had applied for the rights, and the manager for the rights decided not (to allow it)," Kempf said. "I felt bad because the cast was really excited to be taking part in it."

To spare the actors the pain of seeing a different musical go up in its place, Kempf opted for "something completely different."

"('The Miracle Worker') was one I had on a list of plays I wanted to direct. And I thought doing a 180 would be a good way to deal with not being able to do 'Hair.'"

The well-known tale of Anne Sullivan, who changes the life of her blind and deaf student Helen Keller, was an easy selection for Kempf.

"It's such a great America story of overcoming incredible obstacles. That happens through teaching and that's what I like about it so much."

Local stage veteran Amy Hall plays the determined teacher, and newcomer Lexie Watkins plays Helen.

"It's her first major role," Kempf said of the 10-year-old. "She's been in some of the (children's workshop) Tonicism productions, in 'A Christmas Carol' and 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,'" in which Kempf also starred last year.

Also featured in the production are Angela Poncetta and Don McPherson, as Helen's stepmother and father.

"She is his second wife. I have cast (the roles) with that age difference. She is considerably younger. That has an interesting dynamic: a young mother with an older father figure that is kind of distant to the family."

Digging into a play is something Kempf does both on and off the stage, as he stays busy directing, helming "Stage Door" and "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)" last year. He acts as well, with featured roles in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Next Fall" and "A Christmas Carol," despite attempts to step away from performing.

"Directing is a really complete experience, in that you're involved in every aspect of the show. As an actor you're part of the big picture.

"I like directing so much more because learning lines is not so easy for me. But I do it (acting) to challenge myself.

"Since we did 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' (in which he played Big Daddy), I thought, 'I need to retire. Maybe do smaller parts.' Then these great parts come along."

Those parts include Marley's ghost in "A Christmas Carol" and the great magician Prospero in Shakespeare's final play, "The Tempest," which opens in April.

Bringing Shakespeare to The Empty Space is also inspiring for Kempf as the theater's artistic director. He said he likes a varied season, which, along with "Tempest," will conclude with musicals "[Title of Show]" and puppet-rich "Avenue Q."

"I like a good mix. The theater started with completely edgy stuff and Shakespeare. The variety is fantastic. It gets different people to the theater. I know 'Miracle Worker' will do that. Keeping the theater alive brings new faces."

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