Tom Franco walked among his fellow parishioners Wednesday night, putting the finishing touches on a play 53 years in the making. Headset on and cast and crew all around him, Franco directed the parishioners through a final rehearsal in the St. James Church Family Worship Theater.
Called "A Cross on Calvary," the liturgical drama dates back to 1959, when an 11-year-old Franco and his fellow altar boys put on St. James' first Passion play. Father Valentine Welker crafted the original script, which he adapted from the Bible.
Franco participated in the drama for the next several years before leaving for college. Welker transferred to another church in 1970, and the Passion play was no more. Parishioners would occasionally put on excerpts of the original production, but the full-fledged liturgical drama remained an afterthought until the new millennium.
St. James Church will present its annual Passion play, “A Cross on?Calvary,” Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. The modern production still features some of the costumes used in the original production in 1959.
P-J?photos by Scott Shelters
A PRODUCTION REBORN
"The kids needed something," said Franco, who helped revive the passion play in 2003. "We look at this as more than a play or a performance."
He and his group of parishioners-turned-performers will present their 10th consecutive liturgical drama to the public for no charge, beginning Sunday at 3 p.m., Wednesday at 7 p.m. and Friday at 6:15 p.m.
Forty men and women make up the cast and crew, ranging in age from 12 to 75.
"These are all volunteers," said Franco, grinning widely after the rehearsal. "There's not an actor among us."
The actors dress in makeshift costumes. Some are curtains and draperies sewn together. Other costumes have seen the St. James stage on and off for a half century.
The script has been modified, and most of the props and costumes are new, but the cast still recreates the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as it did 53 years ago.
"I think it brings the community together, and it gets people in the spirit of the season," said Deacon Michael Lennon, who plays Apostle Philip and Joseph of Arimathea. "It's open to the whole community - not just the church."
Parishioner Jim Alexander plays multiple roles, including Apostle Peter. He looks forward to displaying his faith and that of his church during the holy season.
"When we get to the season, so much now is commercialized. This gives us the opportunity to demonstrate the true meaning of the season," said Alexander, a four-year veteran of the production. "This is a very active parish. It's a wonderful parish to belong to. It's like one big Catholic family."
For several years, he took in the play from the church's pews. It moved Alexander, a St. James parishioner since 1980.
"It made the whole Easter season come to life," he said.
Tony Prinzi, who has played Caiaphas for the past 10 years, is a part of the church family. The parishioner returns to the stage each year to work with his fellow worshipers.
"I enjoy the camaraderie and putting together the passion of Jesus Christ," he said.
The roles of an apostle and a Roman guard belong to Joe Smith, a seven-year veteran of the theater's stage. The annual play means more to Smith than a chance to display his on-stage talents.
"You learn a lot about what went on in that time period, acting out Scripture," he said.
Christian Storms, 15, plays multiple roles, including a servant and a jester. The Jamestown High School student returns to the production after acting in it last year.
"I like to play the parts," he said. "As the jester, I get to do funny things."
Vince Cimino doesn't have a funny task. He plays the part of Judas, which he describes as "kind of an awesome role."
"The whole story is based on the relationship between Jesus and Judas," he said. "I'm kind of like the traitor personified. I realize that although Judas is a hated person, without him handing over Jesus to the authorities, there would be no salvation."
THE OLD AND THE NEW
With 50-year-old costumes and a play modified from a Smith Corona script, "A Cross on Calvary" features one prop older than them all.
Parishioner Dick Sena discovered the production's cross while inside a barn on Chautauqua Lake. The wood served as the barn's main structure and is at least 200 years old, Franco said.
The production's chalice, made in 2003, features an engravement with the church's name.
New this year, the performance will feature a PowerPoint presentation, contemporary Christian music and videos.
Each performance will feature 13 scenes and last for 75 minutes.
Following each performance, there will be fellowship and refreshments in the church hall. On Good Friday, there will be a meatless soup and bread supper.
Although admittance will be free, there will be a free-will donation available.
Those who view the play will see the current and past work of St. James parishioners on display. Whether they've been involved in "A Cross on Calvary" for weeks or decades, the cast looks forward to Holy Week.
"It's truly a labor of love," Alexander said. "To do this play at St. James year in and year out is a true accomplishment and shows the value of Tom's leadership."
St. James Church is at 27 Allen St., Jamestown.