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Pope’s plays find new life on off-Broadway stage

c. 2007 Religion News Service NEW YORK _ In 1987, Peter Dobbins wandered into a Christian bookstore in Dallas and picked up the collected plays of Karol Wojtyla, the Polish playwright-turned-priest who went on to become Pope John Paul II. Someday, Dobbins thought, he’d like to bring them to life on stage. After percolating for […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

NEW YORK _ In 1987, Peter Dobbins wandered into a Christian bookstore in Dallas and picked up the collected plays of Karol Wojtyla, the Polish playwright-turned-priest who went on to become Pope John Paul II.

Someday, Dobbins thought, he’d like to bring them to life on stage.

After percolating for 20 years, Dobbins’ idea came to life last May when the Storm Theatre, the off-Broadway non-profit group he co-founded, kicked off the Karol Wojtyla Theatre Festival with “The Jeweler’s Shop,” followed by “Our God’s Brother.”

Due to unexpected demand, the festival returned after a summer hiatus to Storm’s small theater just off Times Square this month with “Job.” It concludes in November with “Jeremiah.”

Presenting John Paul’s plays proved a smart choice for the small theater; the festival’s first half took in 30 percent more in ticket sales than any other show over a five-week period in the Storm’s history.

“I knew the idea would get a lot of attention, but I didn’t want to do it as a purely promotional thing,” said Dobbins, 47, who returned to the Roman Catholic Church, after a long period of estrangement, around the time he discovered the future pope’s playwriting.

While the Storm professes no religious affiliation, Dobbins _ now artistic director _ and the other founders were all Catholic, even if few were practicing when the company debuted in 1997.

“It wasn’t anything on the surface, but we made a connection. Regardless of whether I do an overtly Catholic piece, that’s my sensibility,” said Dobbins, who counts Catholic directors Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Ford among his favorite filmmakers.

“I feel like there are tons of people the arts world isn’t for, and I like to make work for them. The arts world can be just as dogmatic as any organized religion,” he said. “People think, `What could the pope have to say to us? He’s an outdated patriarchal figure.”’

On a recent Sunday, the Storm staged an encore performance of “The Jeweler’s Shop” at Manhattan’s Holy Trinity Church, as part of a New York Archdiocese-sponsored conference on sexuality, aimed at young people and couples ages 18 to 35.

The play, completed in 1960 while Wojtyla served as an auxiliary bishop of Krakow, focuses on three couples in various stages of relationships and marital strife. Written around the same time as his book “Love and Responsibility,” the play distills Wojtyla’s teachings on marriage and commitment in the form of interconnected dramatic monologues.

“Many times in our theology, things can come across very abstractly. We need to make it concrete,” said the Rev. Luke Sweeney, vocation director for the archdiocese, who helped organize the conference. The play is “very intense in an intellectual way, yet by situating it in people’s concrete lives and experiences, it brings out the fullness of the teaching and the poignancy of human life.”

The Rev. Joseph Koterski, a professor of philosophy at Fordham University, said he reads “The Jeweler’s Shop” with couples preparing for marriage.

“I’ve had people who take lines from the play and ask if I can put them into my sermon (at the wedding) or if they can recite them to one another at the reception. Certain passages have struck people because they’re very personal.”

The fall portion of the festival features two plays written while Wojtyla’s native Poland was under Nazi occupation, before the future pope was ordained. “Job” retells the biblical story in a way that is both universal and specific, able to transcend time and place, yet clearly penned with Poland’s own suffering in mind.

Director John Regis set “Job” during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and created a play within a play, with Polish resistance fighters staging an underground production in much the same way that Wojtyla and his theater group would perform clandestinely.

“Jeremiah” continues in a similar vein, combining elements of the biblical book with 16th-century Polish history in an attempt to explain how Poland had arrived at its 20th-century situation of captivity.

(Wojtyla’s first play, another biblically inspired drama called “David,” written in 1939 when he was just 19, has been lost.)

“I see in him the desire to give prophetic and poetic witness,” said Koterski. “He’s prophetic in that he’s not going to conform himself to the way current society sees things. But he’s also the witness of the poet or dramatist in that he’s showing us the truth.”

Although Wojtyla wrote plays until 1964, his theatrical involvement peaked during the war. “Our God’s Brother,” performed earlier this year, portrays the story of Adam Chmielowski, a 19th-century Pole later known as Brother Albert. Like Wojtyla, he was a partisan and artist who found his true vocation in the church.

“If (Wojtyla’s) calling had been to stay with (acting and playwriting),” said Dobbins, “I have no doubt he’d have been a major force.”

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Photos of Storm Theatre’s production of `Job’ are available via https://religionnews.com