Passion plays a vanishing Easter tradition


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Traditionally, Passion plays have represented the struggle of mankind over the ultimate enemy — death.

For a number of reasons, the Passion play seems to be fading in popularity.

Several long-running Easter pageants and Passion productions have fallen by the wayside recently, including the play “Why Must He Die?” which is in its final run after 28 years and more than 400 performances.

In the beginning, the play was presented by eighth-graders at St. James School in Sewickley, but it morphed over the years, with 28 mostly adult and teen performers from every region around Pittsburgh and one very dedicated writer, producer and director, Linda Wallace.

“It’s very different from most Passion plays,” said Ms. Wallace, a retired music teacher at St. James. “You get the whole story of Jesus and what he did. It brings a totally different insight.”

Most Passion plays depict the last days of Jesus’ life, including his trial, suffering, death and resurrection.

Her play is more of a musical, with about 36 song snippets. She employs a tableaux method, in which actors pose in frozen scenes to further probe a particular event or moment. Disciples and apostles reflect on Jesus’ life and react to the events leading to his death and resurrection.

“The cast members are very strong, and nearly all of them sing a solo,” said Ms. Wallace, who begins rehearsals shortly after Christmas.

Ms. Wallace, of Sewickley Hills, wrote the play as she was flying home from a business trip with her husband, John, in 1985. The performance was the idea of then-St. James principal Sister Mary Eileen Cooke, who wanted a Passion play that children could understand — and one that included women.

“She told me, 'By all means don’t leave out the women — everyone forgets about the women,' ” Ms. Wallace recalled. “So I took my Bible with me to Los Angeles. I started writing the play on the flight home and by the time we landed, it was finished.”

The performances are free and are suitable for most older children because the play doesn’t include a graphic depiction of the Crucifixion. It implies the action through vague imagery and sound effects. After she retired from teaching, Ms. Wallace founded the Tri-County Choir Institute, and its members took over the production.

The play has been performed 11 times during the Lenten season each year, but finding time for teenagers and young people with other beckoning priorities has been increasingly difficult, said Ms. Wallace, 69.

“I love it, but it’s very exhausting. The high school kids are difficult to round up, the schools are very demanding and the other actors are getting older,” said Ms. Wallace. “It’s more and more difficult every year. It’s pretty much a full-time job.”

There are performances all over the region this year. The curtain will come down for the final time after a performance at 7 p.m. April 18 — Good Friday — at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Canonsburg.

Another popular Passion play that has been discontinued after a successful run was “Veronica’s Veil,” performed for 92 years at St. Michael’s School on the South Side.

The nonprofit group that produced the play stopped performances three years ago after they could no longer use the deteriorating church building. It attracted audiences in the thousands over the years to witness the story written by two local priests.

They wanted the Pittsburgh production to emulate the world’s most famous Passion play in Oberammergau, a village in the Bavarian Alps. That production began in 1634 after villagers promised God they would honor him through a dramatic production if he saved residents from the bubonic plague ravaging most of Europe.

When only one villager died from the so-called Black Death in July 1633, the villagers kept their promise and staged Passion plays every 10 years. The tradition has continued, though the play itself has undergone several rewrites after protesters alleged that the content was anti-Semitic.

Though people have been walking away from organized religion steadily in recent decades, the Passion genre enjoyed a brief resurgence in 2004 with Mel Gibson’s film “Passion of the Christ.” Conversely, it also repelled some from Passion plays, due to the film’s reputation for violence.

“The Passion play is about how suffering and death are not meaningless, but were used by God to bring about new life,” said Edith M. Humphrey, a William F. Orr professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. “In a society that largely has escaped big-scale suffering, and where people think a normal life is comfortable and secure, that message may be an uncomfortable reminder of the fragility of life.”

Passion plays are a Western phenomenon, Ms. Humphrey said, and began around the 1200s, when liturgies began to expand to include dramatic content.

“Whole communities got involved in plays that go through all of salvation history — from creation to judgment,” including the “York Mysteries” in York, England, in the 13th and 14th centuries.

The popularity of the dramatized accounts of Jesus’ last moments spread through Europe and eventually made their way to the U.S., Ms. Humphrey said.

Nowadays, people aren’t used to attending plays and favor other types of entertainment such as films, she said.

“I suppose every generation has its own way of expressing faith and maybe the motion picture is now taking its place,” said Ms. Humphrey, who hopes the genre sticks around for a little while longer. “It would be sad to see it go. It’s an important part of Western culture.”

Though many local productions are fading fast, at least one remains going strong with a packed house each night and thousands of fans.

“The Passion of our Lord,” by the Word of Life Ministries in Hempfield has been enjoyed by large audiences for 15 years. Rather than waning in popularity, the production has been forced to routinely turn people away from its doors.

“It is going really strong,” said church member Cheryl Altman, who interprets the play for deaf viewers.

The church can seat nearly 1,000 and it fills up quickly between Palm Sunday and Good Friday when the play is presented nearly every night by more than 100 actors, 60 choir members and 20 stage crew members.

The production — free to the public — is considered an outreach effort, though some feel it’s good enough to be mistaken for a professional production. All of the participants are church members.

“We get a lot of good reviews,” said Ms. Altman, of Hempfield. “It’s just well done and quality work and they seem to really enjoy it. They say they are really touched by it.”

Audience members sometimes feel themselves swept into the drama unfolding in front of them, she said.

“It just helps to bring everybody into the drama. They feel the presence of the Lord there,” Ms. Altman said. “People want to hear that, this time of year especially.”

Another local production going strong is in Ligonier, where Holy Trinity Church has been performing “His Passion Forever” for 39 years.

“The cast is great, but the crew has been with me for at least 30 years. Every year, they come back and help me,” said director Sandy Podlucky, also of Ligonier. “They are marvelous. It’s just a wonderful experience at our church.”

The performance is Ecumenical, combining 35 child actors from local houses of worship. Like the “Why Must He Die?!” production, the one in Ligonier uses the tableaux method, with few spoken words.

“We do 25 scenes, and the 14 Stations of the Cross are incorporated in the scenes,” she explained.

“The whole program is taken from the Book of Mark,” said Ms. Podlucky, who has been directing the play for 30 years. Her co-producer is Trish Perry, another member of Holy Trinity.

The play will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Monday in Holy Trinity Church, 342 W. Main St., and at 7:30 p.m. April 18 in the Ligonier Town Hall, 120 E. Main St. The Rev. John M. Foriska narrates the play.

Asked to explain the continued popularity of the production even as others in the region are slipping away, Ms. Podlucky gives the credit to God.

“I don’t know,” she said. “We just say it's the Holy Spirit — he leads them in here.”

Actress Karie Jarvis of Moon also credits the Holy Spirit for bringing her years of friendship — and even love — through her participation in the “Why Must He Die?!” production.

She joined the production in 1995 as an eighth-grader at Moon Area High School and over the next five years played several characters, including Veronica; Mary, mother of Jesus; and Mary Magdalene.

Even when she went off to college, the production pulled her back to fill in for absent performers.

“There was really no getting out of it — ever,” she said, jokingly. “There was one time that my mom couldn’t drive me back to school so [Ms. Wallace] had to drive me back” to Alderson Broaddus University — two hours away.

By 2010, Ms. Jarvis rejoined an all-alumni cast for a shortened season due to breast cancer treatments that Ms. Wallace was undergoing.

As an adult, Ms. Jarvis, now 32, found a greater appreciation for and more of a spiritual connection to the production, which also introduced her to cast mate Kurtis Charlton, whom she fell in love with. The couple plans to marry in June.

“I think it’s bittersweet. I really will miss it,” said Ms. Jarvis, who is a music teacher at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Moon. “I love the people I am there with. We go out and sing karaoke after the shows; we have a good time. I’ll miss that part.”

Even if community churches eventually stop their productions, Ms. Humphreys said she believes their message will still get through.

“The story of the one righteous human being suffering and dying to change everything will continue to make its appeal, even if the medium of the Passion play is no longer used,” she said. “But as an important expression of Western Christian piety, it is a valuable part of our heritage in the U.S.; it deserves to be protected.”

To learn more about "The Passion of Our Lord,"  visit Word of Life Ministries online at www.wolonline.org; for more information about "Why Must He Die?!" including schedules, visit www.tricountychoirs.com; to get schedules and directions to "His Passion Forever," visit the Holy Trinity website at www.holytrinityligonier.org.


Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1159. First Published April 10, 2014 12:00 AM

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