It's been 20 years since Elaine Laws began directing plays at Althoff Catholic High School in Belleville, so she has been taking a walk down Memory Lane.
This weekend, her drama department will perform "The Miracle Worker," a play based on the life of deaf and blind Helen Keller and her heroic teacher, Anne Sullivan.
It was the first play Laws directed at Althoff in 1992. She remembers borrowing an antique water pump from a local resident and rigging a system to make water come out of it on stage.
"You have to have a pump, and you have to have water (for this play) because Helen recognizes the water and understands the word for water," said Laws, 52, of Belleville. "And that's the breakthrough that Anne Sullivan needed to teach her all the amazing things she eventually learned to do."
Laws didn't remember the name of the man who owned the water pump, but she returned to his house this year and again got permission to use it.
Earlier this fall, Althoff presented "Lazy Jack and the Princess Who Would Not Laugh," a play based on an old Appalachian tale; and "He Ain't Done Right by Nell," an old-time melodrama.
"Lazy Jack" was the first play Laws directed, as a second-grader in California. The cast used a stuffed horse to represent Lazy Jack's donkey. It worked but wasn't ideal.
"That's when I learned my first big lesson as a director: You've got to find your main prop right away," Laws said. "Otherwise, you have to substitute."
"He Ain't Done Right" was the second play that Laws directed. By then, she was a senior at Assumption Catholic High School in East St. Louis.
One of her cast members was Reginald Hudlin, who went on to become a writer, film director and producer and served as BET president of entertainment.
"He also was my first stage kiss," said Laws, who played singer Frenchy in "Destry Rides Again."
Laws was all over the map before Althoff. She studied speech, theater and English at McKendree University.
Laws worked in child care at Catholic Children's Home in Alton and managed eight Kay-Bee Toy and Hobby Shops before deciding to become a nun with the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Her formation included teaching English at a high school in Liberia and helping developmentally disabled adults learn life skills.
Laws later switched gears to became an administrator of Illinois group homes. She also was performing and directing with the Looking Glass Playhouse in Lebanon when she was tapped to work part-time at Althoff.
"Sister Jan Renz (the principal) called me and asked if I knew anyone at Looking Glass who would be interested in directing plays," Laws recalls. "And I said, 'Yeah, me.'"
Today, Laws is a full-time English teacher and play director. Drama students know her as "Coach E."
She's in heaven now that the school has a multipurpose wing with an auditorium, stage, lighting and sound booth, storage space for props and costumes and a workshop for set building.
Aimee Barbeau stars as Helen in "The Miracle Worker." Her biggest challenge is pretending to be blind and deaf.
"I have to just sit there with a vacant stare on my face and not look at people," said Aimee, 16, of Swansea. "It's hard being blind when you're not blind."
Elizabeth Ferris, 17, of Fairview Heights, plays Anne, and Erin McCarkel, 18, of Belleville, plays Helen's mother, Kate. Elizabeth has had to learn to speak with an Irish accent.
Both Elizabeth and Erin are trying to master parts that are physical and emotional. The characters cry, scream and fight to restrain Helen.
"This is one of my favorite plays," Elizabeth said. "I was ecstatic when I found out we were doing it. But it's a lot to live up to since it was a movie, and Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft won Oscars for it."
Laws found nearly all cast members from the 1992 Althoff production through Facebook and invited them to this weekend's show.
Erin has been in an estimated 30 plays directed by Laws, including those performed as part of children's summer drama camps at Althoff.
"(Laws is) like a second mom," Erin said. "She's helped me to grow so much as an actor. Almost everything I've learned (about theater), I've learned from her. I know I always have someone there who has helped shape me as a person."
At a glance
What: "The Miracle Worker"
Where: Althoff Catholic High School's Heritage Hall
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Admission: $5 for adults, $3 for students and $1 for senior citizens over 60 and children under 10
Information: Call 235-1100