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Rise and fall of a perfectly good Passion play


Teddy was a big-city boy and, although he moved to my small hometown when we were both in grade school, he always had a big-city flair about him. After we graduated from the public high school, Teddy went off to Notre Dame. I went to the junior college at the end of Sixth Street.

Soon Teddy was back home with the news that he was going to produce a Passion play for college credit with people from our church as actors. He said I could be Mary Magdalene. Teddy, a small man, quick moving with brown curly hair and a rather sharp nose, cast himself as Judas. He daydreamed through Mass a few Sundays and cast the rest of the parts. We started rehearsals right after Christmas to be ready to stage the show at the high school auditorium the week before Holy Week.

Teddy persuaded a dentist who had never been on stage before to take the part of Jesus. Ruth, the mother of a classmate, played Mary. Her husband, Frank, my junior college English teacher, wrote a poem for the prologue. Teddy’s dad, who owned the town’s only hotel, would recite the poem and play Caiaphas. The county assessor portrayed a bumbling, loveable Peter. The young associate pastor was one of the apostles. A man who sold stamps at the post office became Pilate and looked stunning in his toga. Another postal employee, a man I’d never seen smile, built the set. My brother was a high priest, as was a radio and TV repairman, a businessman who sold ice and coal and a letter carrier. The letter carrier’s wife was one of the women at the well in the opening tableau. A chunky electrician played Herod who leered at the dancing Salome, portrayed by another classmate. A man who farmed west of town walked four miles in a snowstorm one night to rehearse the role of Joseph of Arimathaea. A lawyer’s wife and her sister played the organ, brought in for the event. A favorite high school teacher helped with the makeup. A hundred other people were involved as actors or people in crowd scenes or helped with making and caring for costumes, lighting the set, doing publicity, handling ticket sales.

Nobody asked where the money for set, costumes and other necessities came from. With Teddy, money never seemed to be a problem.

And nobody asked where Teddy got the script. The purple leatherette-covered programs said the play was written, directed and produced by Teddy.

“Golgotha” turned out to be a smash. Full houses every night. People came from miles around -- including the bishop.

That was just the beginning. As we prepared to repeat the play the following year, Teddy asked me to write to LOOK magazine. And -- no kidding -- LOOK sent a reporter and photographer who spent a week with us during dress rehearsals. LOOK never used the story, but that didn’t dampen our parade.

Something miraculous was in the air. The parish, young and old, men and women, discovered for the second time the delight of working together. Aided by lights and music, a few artificial beards and flowing costumes -- and a timeless story -- we could make magic night after night, could transport the citizens of a sleepy little prairie town to the golden city of Jerusalem.

It takes a kind of fearlessness to do what Teddy did. He was a demanding director. Sometimes if we weren’t investing the kind of energy he wanted, he threw a temper tantrum. I recall whispering to another cast member, after such an outburst, that I’d be in the next room praying for Teddy to get drafted.

And that summer he did -- caught in the draft for the Korean War. Teddy hated the Army. For him, no day as a soldier was a good day.

His hometown cast vowed to carry on, to put on the Passion play a third time, to show we could do it -- if we had to -- without him. The young associate pastor said he’d direct. We found, however, that Teddy wasn’t so easily replaced. Nobody was giving their undivided attention to the hundreds of details Teddy had attended to. Nobody cared about the Passion play more than anything else in the world, as Teddy cared. Nobody was that fearless. When most of the lead actors were stricken with the flu, we breathed a prayer of thanks and canceled the play. I was working for the local newspaper and wrote the story -- my only front-page story.

Next year, Teddy was home again. For reasons that remain mysterious, the Army had decided it didn’t need him after all. The play went on, this time with a big, modernistic set that took up a huge amount of the high school stage, which was also the basketball court. I was away at college and cut classes to get home to see the show. The auditorium was packed. The audience loved it.

But the tradition ended there. The town never had another Passion play.

I graduated, married, had children and thought about the Passion play only at Passiontide when the priest proclaimed the story I knew so well. I could see it all -- my hometown friends loving Jesus, betraying Jesus, accompanying Jesus to his trials, to his death, lowering him from the cross, grieving their loss. And I’d get misty-eyed at the memories and wonder why more parishes don’t give their people this kind of experience to live and to cherish all their lives.

And then I heard the rest of the story. One day after the excitement of the third successful production had faded a bit, Frank, the college professor, pulled a book from his bookcase and sat down to read. The words were astonishingly familiar. He called Teddy to come over right away. No, Teddy hadn’t written the play. Yes, it was the English version of the play presented every 10 years in Oberammergau, Germany. Frank marched Teddy over to the parish house. The pastor called the bishop. And the parish went back to smaller ways of glorifying God.

Teddy got a degree, but not from Notre Dame. He moved to a big city and directed plays at a high school. Once when I was in his city, I called him but got no answer. A few years later a friend gave me a copy of his obituary.

I believe, when we get to the Holy City, its not just the saints who’ll go marching in. I expect there will be a few rascals like Teddy in the crowd. With all the good men of Galilee to pick from, Jesus himself chose to hang out with a rascal.

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000