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Sewickley Hills woman marks end of passion play

| Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 3:36 p.m.
Randy Jarosz
Kurtis Charlton of Moon dressed as Peter and Terri Lynn Cheponis of Kilbuck dressed as Mary Magdalene sing during rehearsal for the play 'Why Must He Die,' Sunday, March 9, 2014 at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Franklin Park.
Randy Jarosz
Director Linda Wallace (right) of Sewickley Hills organizes a scene with Matt Brind’Amour of Brighton Heights as John (front), Adam Mazza of Houston as Jesus and Terri Lynn Cheponis of Kilbuck as Mary Magdalene during rehearsal for the play “Why Must He Die,” Sunday, March 9, 2014 at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Franklin Park.

Linda Wallace said she hesitated after she first considered retiring from directing productions of “Why Must He Die?” — the music-filled Easter passion play she wrote about 28 years ago.

The director of the TriCounty Choir Institute said she promised God in 2009 that she would continue the plays at area churches if he would cure her of breast cancer.

When she said her prayers were answered, the Sewickley Hills woman continued the tradition, even while she was recovering.

“But there are many, many pressures in presenting it, producing and directing it, and it has become overwhelming,” said Wallace, former director of music at St. James School in Sewickley.

This will be the last year for the production, which is scheduled at several locations across the region.

Wallace said she called former St. James School principal Sister Mary Eileen Cook as she weighed her decision.

“Linda has always been so generous with her time and talents,” said Cook, who asked Wallace to write the play almost three decades ago.

Cook told Wallace that after presenting the play to many people over so many years, she can “surely only be blessed by that.”

“Why Must He Die?” is a play within a play, Wallace said.

The action repeatedly is frozen so characters can reflect on Jesus' life, react to what led to his impending death and share thoughts with the audience.

The play first was performed in 1985, and was presented for many years by St. James' eighth-grade graduating class. Later performances were by Sewickley Choir Institute's Teen Chorale, which eventually changed its name to TriCounty Choir Institute, and by the organization's Village Singers.

At one point, the group did 28 performances in one Easter season.

The play has been performed at 143 churches of all denominations, and 17 times at various schools and retirement homes. The last play will mark 416 performances.

Village Singers will continue, but there will be fewer concerts during the Christmas season, Wallace said.

For the first time in about 15 years, the play won't be presented at St. James Catholic Church. The Rev. Thomas Burke said space has been “maxed out” because of increased activities there.

Local performers in this year's cast include Kim Householder of Leetsdale, who will be play a Canaanite woman, and Angel Palladini of Sewickley, who will play one of the children.

To commemorate the last year, Wallace has set up a “hall of fame” on the choir group's Facebook page. Wallace said she is encouraging the 500 alumni of “Why Must He Die?” over the years to comment.

Hannah Gaul, 19, formerly of Beaver Falls,who played the woman of blood and the liturgical dancer in the play, said she never before has been part of such a moving performance.

“It offered me one of the best real-life musical experiences ever, while still being able to worship at every show,” said Gaul, a student at The College of Wooster in Ohio. “It's one of the best ways to celebrate the Easter season for those in it and those watching.”

Joanne Barron is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-324-1406 or jbarron@tribweb.com.

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