To foster a greater awareness of and more active participation in the Year of the Priest, Saint Luke Productions is touring the United States with a new drama, Vianney, depicting the life and ministry of the Curé of Ars, the patron saint of parish priests. This reviewer watched the play in December 2009 in a parochial school gymnasium/auditorium in suburban Philadelphia. It is an extraordinary work of art, and Leonardo Defilippis gives a moving performance in the title role.
Defilippis, founder of Saint Luke Productions and author of the script, incorporates many of the same elements that were so effective in the stage version of his one-man-show about St. Maximilian Kolbe in 1995: a minimalist set consisting of fabric-covered panels, boxes and scrims; a boisterous prologue painting a historical backdrop for the saint’s life; a series of short vignettes distinguished by quick changes of lighting, with projections, music, and audio segments adding a further dimension; and a heightening of the dramatic tension through the appearance of the Devil in a speaking part.
The new production is greatly enhanced by the sparing but striking use of a flat-screen television suspended over center stage. This allows the introduction of a virtual cast of dozens: seminary administrators debating what to do with the hapless, over-aged and underachieving seminarian; crowds of uncomprehending villagers reacting to the arrival of the earnest new priest in Ars; Vianney’s collaborator in founding an orphanage, Catherine Lassagne (Lindsay Younce, star of Thérèse), narrates occasionally; and there are even apparitions of St. Philomena (little Lucy Defilippis), the young Roman virgin and martyr on whose intercession the Curé relied. Authentic costumes and evocative masks create a vivid sense of early and mid-nineteenth-century France.
After the recorded musical overture by composer Randall DeBruyn, with swirling, supernatural imagery onscreen, I wondered how a former Shakespearean actor was going to manage in that interactive museum. There were, in fact, initial rough spots as Defilippis tried to adjust to the basketball-court acoustics but then had to hurry to keep up with the digitized dialogue. Furthermore the actor uses slightly exaggerated vowels and intonation to suggest a French accent, presenting another challenge for the listeners. But once the pace was set and the audience grew accustomed to Vianney’s voice, the drama became intensely interesting and the two-plus hours passed quickly.
The wealth of incident in the life of the Curé of Ars and the formidable challenges that he faced in his priestly ministry make for dramatic variety, which is seasoned by samples of his forthright peasant humor. After a while it doesn’t matter whether the actor onstage is conversing with someone onscreen or with a voice on the audio track. The spectator’s imagination is engaged, and it almost seems as if he is reading a storybook illustrated with an occasional engraving.
That book would be the classic biography of St. John Vianney by Abbé François Trochu, which the script follows selectively but closely. This means that practically all of the incidents portrayed are factual; many of them were taken directly from testimony given during the canonization process. When Vianney puts on his biretta and preaches, we hear excerpts from actual sermons.
Literary critics have often observed that in Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the Devil “gets all the good lines”. In Vianney he gets some very scary ones, but the real dramatic high points come when the humble Curé celebrates sacraments: when he elevates the host at his first Mass or sits in the box and listens to a series of one-sentence confessions made by actors whose shadowy faces file past slowly in a montage.
I repeat: Vianney is an extraordinary work of art. It is a well-crafted work in which the whole Defilippis family collaborated. It is a drama that can be appreciated by adults and youngsters alike (judging from the comments of several schoolchildren who saw the play and were interviewed afterward for the diocesan newspaper). At the performance this reviewer attended, the audience of around two hundred included one auxiliary bishop and a dozen or more priests. The play received a standing ovation.
The drama Vianney unforgettably depicts the trials and triumphs of a true pastor of souls. In doing so it recalls the reasons why the Holy Father declared a Year of the Priest. Anyone who sees it will be inspired to start praying, or to pray more fervently, for priests and seminarians. The stage production is well worthwhile and highly recommended.
A schedule of the tour is can be found at www.stlukeproductions.com.
[This article originally appeared in The Wanderer (www.thewandererpress.com) and is used by permission of the author.]