Some of my longtime readers may remember a column I wrote from a few years back called “A Passionate Passion Play”. It referred to a live theatrical musical show about the Crucifixion that was appearing in the Chicago area. The column was written before I had a chance to see the show for myself, so I could only reflect on what others had to say about it. As the show returns to the Chicago area in 2014, I can now reflect on my experiences as an audience member in 2012, and also offer some exclusive behind-the-scenes tidbits from those involved in the production itself.
The Seven Last Words of Christ is entirely performed by amateurs, and features the members of The Little Flowers Catholic Dance and Theater Troupe. The girls in the troupe are between the ages of four through nineteen, so the first thing people wrongly assume is that the show will be lighthearted and cute entertainment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seven Last Words is an incredibly powerful and emotional drama, and the audience I was with sat there stunned in amazement over how breathtaking the show was.
Karl Schudt currently serves as choir director of Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, IL, and he is one of the adult performers who participates in Seven Last Words every year. I decided to ask Karl a few questions about the show, and to share his thoughts with my readers. The biggest question on most people's minds, of course, is “Why should people come see it?" Karl had a great answer to that one: “The real reason is to be able to share in the resurrection on Easter, and meditating on the Passion is a good way to do that. See the Roman tradition of the Stations of the Cross, for example. This is a live, musical, theatrical Stations of the Cross. You'll be better for having gone, I believe.” He added that although the actors in the show are amateurs, it is by no means an amateur production, and it has professional values and highly trained singers. Since Seven Last Words has been done many times in the past, another pointed question I had for him was this: “You’ve been it since the beginning. How has it changed?" Karl's response: “We've done the show 5 times, I think, and it's getting better every time. Anna Pacek, the musical director, was quite young when we started,and time has let her talent blossom. The staging and acting has always been good, but as the kids get older, they take on new roles, which is fun to see. In fact, the first time I participated, I was hired to help the tenor section. I was so impressed that I wanted my children to be a part of the group, and [ I ] am pleased that two of my daughters are singing in the choir”.
Another person who was willing to share his thoughts with me was Jeff Sniegowski, who portrays St. Simon of Cyrene in Seven Last Words. I asked him: “Why did you take the role?”, and he noted: “I feel that St. Simon of Cyrene represents all of us. We are naturally hesitant to carry our crosses and we tend to recoil from them. But as we are forced to, like Simon, it changes us for the better”. I also asked: “What do think audiences will take away from the show?” He stated: “As the scene unfolds, my character watches with incredulity as he sees a Man being beaten, whipped, spat upon and screamed at by the Roman soldiers and the angry mob as he walks the route of his execution. All this is done silently, by the way, since the scenes are acted out simultaneously to sacred music performed by a 50-plus person choir, orchestra, and very talented soloists... As Jesus approaches me and two other actors who play Simon's children, [and] then falls right in front of us, I actually feel awestruck by the magnitude of this representation of an actual historic event. I actually feel as though I am there! When I am forced by the Roman soldiers to assist this Man as He lay face-down on the ground, all I can see is this horrid crown of thorns piercing Him. Time stands still for me at that moment, and I begin to realize just what this Man has done for me.”
A third person who offered their thoughts on the show was Maureen Johnson, whose eight year daughter, Bridget, appears in the production as the daughter of a follower of Jesus. Maureen felt the best way to convey the talent behind the show was to let her daughter speak about the experience personally. She asked her daughter: “How do you feel about being part of such an important production and what does it mean to you?” The girl answered: "I've never been in The Seven Last Words before this year, so it kind of makes me feel more sorry for Jesus than I ever have before because I'm actually seeing what truly happened when I'm in my character during rehearsal. Being a part of The Seven Last Words makes the Passion of Christ feel more real to me.” When asked: “What are your hopes for opening night?” Bridget responded: “I pray that God helps me do my part right so others can better understand what Jesus went through for us. I'm excited to be a part of it."
Finally, I spoke with Rich Anzalone, who portrays both St. Peter and Joseph of Arimathea in the show. I asked him: “What's it like taking on two separate roles?” and he told me: “I find this particularly challenging because of the differences in the backgrounds of the two characters. St. Peter being a fisherman, and Joseph of Arimathea being a rich man and a member of the Sanhedrin. This gives me two different perspectives to keep separate as I am on stage. That said, I feel it has helped me with my Lenten devotion as I take part in the play. I have thought deeply about these characters, and it is spiritually uplifting to be part of this whole experience, and to be able to bring it to other people through the performances.” He also noted that his daughter Caroline is part of the show, and I asked: “How has it been rehearsing along side your daughter?” He answered: “Performing onstage with my daughter is very exciting. Being able to spend a lot of extra time together has strengthened our relationship. Having other parents in the play has allowed me to make many new friends. We feel blessed to be part of the group, especially with all the other Catholic families who share similar values”.
All of those involved with the show stressed the same point to me in different interviews: people need to see the show for themselves to truly understand how moving and memorable it is. As someone who attended a previous performance and will be returning again this year, I couldn't agree more! The best news for my readers is this: as of the time of this writing (March 31), there's still a chance to buy tickets. However, past years of The Seven Last Words of Christ have been sold out, so you better buy them quickly. Seven Last Words will only be appearing at two different locations this year. Buy your tickets now while you still can! To do so, just visit the website at http://www.sevenlastwordsofchrist.com/. You'll be able to thank me later.
Date and show information is as followers:
The Seven Last Words of Christ
Saturday April 5th, 7:00PM
St. Mary Immaculate
15629 S. Rte. 59,
Sunday April 13th, 3:30PM
Sacred Heart Catholic Church
8245 West 111th Street
Palos Hills, IL 60465-2292
Student (13 thru college): $10.00
4 & Under: Free