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Passion plays unite believers across centuries

| Saturday, April 9, 2011

The story is almost 2,000 years old.

Yet, each year, it becomes new again as churches and other groups stage Lenten dramas depicting Jesus' final days on earth and his resurrection.

They're most frequently called passion plays, a reference to the passion — the mental, spiritual and physical sufferings — that Jesus experienced between the night of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

Although passion plays were undoubtedly performed earlier, the earliest record of a passion play is a set of stage directions written down in England in the 9th century, according to Attilio (Buck) Favorini, theater historian and director of graduate studies in theatre arts at the University of Pittsburgh.

"It was ways to enliven certain aspects of the Easter liturgy — how to dress up three priests or altar boys and play a little scene," Favorini says.

When most of the congregation was illiterate, passion plays were a graphic attention-getter, a way to make the stories come alive.

"They had a devotional objective — to create strong powerful images the populace would relate to," Favorini says.

In later years, those plays had civic and promotional functions, as well, he says. Guilds of crafts workers and whole towns produced increasingly spectacular productions that showed off their talents or drew crowds of people to their fairs and markets.

That tradition continues today in towns such as Oberammergau, Germany, whose once-a-decade passion play involves thousands of residents. Last year's production drew 520,000.

A smaller, more-spiritual outreach effort has fueled the Presbyterian Church of Plum Creek's annual Lenten play for each of the past six years. This year, they're remounting "Believe," which producer Joy Smith says seemed best to embody a true portrayal of Jesus' final days.

The church leaders felt it was an important outreach mission to the community, Smith says.

"We get 300 to 350 people every time we put on a performance," she says. "We have a coffee hour after with a chance to reach out and talk to people who are not everyday churchgoers. ... Bible texts (tell us) we need to go out and preach the gospel and encourage people to keep Jesus in their hearts. This is the way our church has been doing the mission."

Dave Plance considers himself a beneficiary of that objective. After his father died last year, Plance and his wife, Stephanie, thought something was missing from their lives that they might find through church attendance. While serving as volunteer ushers at last year's performances, Plance found himself moved by the show and its message.

"When you are there, and Jesus is on the cross, and everyone is singing about the blood of the lamb, you find yourself fighting back tears," he says. "Being part of that is really something. I definitely feel a calling for this."

The Plances have since joined the church, and Dave now serves as a deacon.

"It's filling me up. It gives me a purpose," he says. "I'm helping people who need help."

For many productions, education and spiritual growth are the main mission.

"It's another avenue of ministry, a way to move people closer to God during Lent," says Cindy Olszewski, director of programs and operations at Christ United Methodist Church in Bethel Park. "We try to give people a context. You really have to place it in history."

It's the fourth year that Christ United Methodist Church has performed a drama. This year's production, "Prelude to the Crucifixion — Palm Sunday to Holy Thursday," helps prepare the audience for Good Friday services, Olszewski says. "We never forget that it needs to be compelling, she says. "But, at the same time, there are teaching moments."

The church's adult-education committee prepares and distributes an educational booklet to those attending. Because much of this year's drama is set in and around the temple in Jerusalem, the program offers history and background about the building at the time Jesus lived.

It's a moving and educational experience for the performers, says Bob Summers, who wrote "Make Us Believers" 26 years ago to bring alive the ministry of Christ.

"It's a good way for people to come in and learn about their faith while performing," says Summers who serves as youth minister at St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church in Moon, one of four parishes where the musical opera has performances this year.

Each parish has its own cast of between 55 and 60 performers. In writing the script and score, Summers drew on the Gospels and focused his story on the relationship between Judas and Jesus in his final days on earth. The play has an impact o performers and audience members, Summers says.

"I think it's the profound experience of Jesus being one of us. He goes through pain, and his struggles become relevant to us while we watch this happen." Summer says. "We see God in this life, and it becomes real to us."

For Linda Wallace, this year's performances of "Why Must He Die?" have special meaning.

Wallace, the director of the Tri County Choir Institute and writer of "Why Must He Die?" has staged the show for each of the past 20 years with members of the Institute's teen chorale. For this year's production, members of the teen chorale will be joined by 22 alumni from past productions,

A mixture of songs, dialogue and freeze-frame tableaux, the production takes place during Jesus's trial before Pilate and uses flashbacks and testimony by people Jesus knew to tell the story of his life.

Initially, Wallace had planned to skip this year's production because she was being treated for cancer. Bu,t she realized, the impact the play had on others' lives.

"I feel the Lord leads me in what he wants me to do," says Wallace. "It has become an important part of my healing."

As rehearsals began, Wallace says she felt her positive outlook returning.

"I realized I had to do it. The Lord wants me to do this," Wallace says. "It makes the Easter season because we renew life. It makes my faith come alive."

Pittsburgh favorite is no show this year

Missing from the list of passion plays is the area's oldest established production. Performances of "Veronica's Veil" are in suspension this year as The Veronica's Veil Players look for funds to repair the historic South Side building where performances have taken place for 92 years.

Instead, members of the nonprofit community theater group have been performing living stations of the cross in local churches. The final performance is at 6:30 p.m. Friday at St. Paul of the Cross Monastery, 148 Monastery Ave., South Side.

"Veronica's Veil" has been part of the Pittsburgh Lenten season since its debut in 1910 when two priests from the Passionist congregation of what was then St. Michael Parish, wrote it.

During the 1920s, the annual production drew as many as 25,000 people to the 800-seat auditorium on the second floor of St. Michael School.

According to Lauren Winkelman, a fundraising consultant for The Veronica's Veil Players, the building has deteriorated to the point that it was no longer possible to hold performances.

More than $500,000 is needed to make the building fully operational. The damaged, leaking roof alone requires at least $150,000 to repair.

The nonprofit theater group is pursuing funding resources to conduct a complete feasibility study, and researching the possibility of conducting a financial campaign.

"Veronica's Veil is a rich Pittsburgh tradition, housed in a former school that is still dear to the generations of families who attended school there, and to the Pittsburgh Catholic community as a whole," says Winkelman. "It is devastating to think that 2010 could have been its last year being performed."

Those interested in volunteering or making a donation can contact The Veronica's Veil Players at 412-431-5550 or

Additional Information:

Finding your Passion

The following are some of the Lenten dramas being performed around the area:

'Prelude to the Crucifixion • Palm Sunday to Holy Thursday': 6:15 p.m. dinner, followed by 7 p.m. performance Wednesday, Christ United Methodist Church, 44 Highland Road, Bethel Park . $5. Details: 412-835-6621

'Make Us Believers': $5. 724-674-4383

• 8 p.m. Friday, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, St. Alphonsus Roman Catholic Church, 201 Church Road, Pine

• 7 p.m. Tuesday. St. Margaret Mary Roman Catholic Church, 1 Parish Place, Moon

• 7 p.m. Friday. Church of the Beloved Disciple, 1310 S. Center Street Extension, Grove City , Lawrence County

• 7 p.m. April 22. St. Frances Cabrini Roman Catholic Church, 115 Trinity Drive, Center Township , Beaver County

'Why Must He Die?': Performed by Tri County Choir Institute students and alumni. Free-will offering. 412-741-3463 or

• 7 p.m. Friday, St. Paul Cathedral, Fifth Avenue at Craig Street, Oakland

• 2 p.m. April 17, St. Elizabeth Parish, 1 Grove Place, Pleasant Hills

• 7 p.m. April 17, St. James Parish, 200 Walnut St.,  Sewickley

• Noon April 22, St. John of God Parish, 1011 Church Ave., McKees Rocks

• 7 p.m. April 22, St. Patrick Parish, 317 West Pike St., Canonsburg

'Believe': 7:30 p.m. Wednesday7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. April 17 at the Presbyterian Church of Plum Creek, 550 Center New Texas Road, Plum . Free, but reservations suggested. 412-793-4525 or

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