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'Veronica's Veil' is spiritual tradition

| Thursday, March 11, 2004

PITTSBURGH -- It seems like Tony Polito was destined to be a part of a Lenten play rooted in Pittsburgh's South Side for 85 years.

In the 1950s, Polito, a retired actor, found out about "Veronica's Veil," a play written by two priests that relates to Biblical scriptures.

The story focuses on the high priest who sentenced Christ to death and a woman who showed pity for Jesus on the way to his crucifixion.

A compelling scene comes when Veronica approaches Jesus and offers to wipe his face with her veil as he bears the cross on his back.

Jesus accepts the kind offer and Veronica is left with an imprint of the savior's face on her cloth.

Polito, 71, said his life changed when he learned about the play and became involved.

"I met my wife there," he said of the performances. "And her name happens to be Veronica. She actually played Veronica for a few years."

An acting group of area church members called The Veronica's Veil Players performs the Bible story each year at St. Michael's Church Auditorium on Pittsburgh's South Side in preparation for Easter.

The first half of the 2 1/2-hour performance features scenes where the actors stand motionless as a narrator explains moments in time from Jesus' persecution and death.

"Almost the whole first half is The Passion as it is read in the churches in Palm Sunday," Polito said. "It's really the same thing, only we've been doing it for 85 years, and ours is a little bit different presentation."

The play opens with a depiction of the Last Supper and includes such scenes as Judas repenting after he betrayed Jesus and turned him over to the Romans.

Scenes later in the play focus on Veronica coming to Jesus' aid, even through her husband holds a high position in the Roman hierarchy.

"Her husband is a member of the high tribunal ... sort of like the second in command," Polito said.

High drama is present throughout the play, the director said.

The performance takes a different direction in its latter stages, which are set 20 years after Jesus' death.

The impact the high priest's ruling has on his family dominates a few scenes, the director said.

"The high priest, in our story, goes a little bit insane toward the end," Polito said. "His whole family falls apart."

As they seek refuge in catacombs in Rome, Veronica, a Roman soldier turned priest, and one of the high priest's daughters, Ruth, are discovered by the high priest's other, vindictive daughter, Miriam.

While imprisoned before being thrown to the lions, Veronica and her brethren witness a miracle, Polito said.

"They're in prison, and they're not given any food and water," the director said. "Veronica lays the veil down on a fountain in the prison that was dry and water comes out of the fountain."

Polito said the play concludes with a scene in heaven where Veronica and her comrades share peace.

The latter scenes in "Veronica's Veil" are not mentioned in the Bible, Polito said.

But, research done by the performers has revealed an interesting point.

"In the research that we have in our program, it says the name Veronica comes from a Greek and Latin word Vero, which means an icon or an image," Polito said.

Polito said two priests, one a Pittsburgh-native, penned "Veronica's Veil" in 1910.

While it has been performed in other areas along the East Coast, the Pittsburgh acting group has been most devoted to the play's preservation, he added.

The Veronica's Veil Players began this year's performances Feb. 29.

Show times will be 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and on March 20 and 21.

Two shows will be at 2 and 8 p.m. March 27, with another at 2 p.m. March 28.

The series will conclude the following weekend with 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. showings April 3 and a final showing at 2 p.m. April 4, Palm Sunday.

Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for senior citizens and students through high school.

St. Michael's Church Auditorium is located on Pius Street in the South Side of Pittsburgh.

For more information, call (412) 431-5550.

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