Inspired by the tale of a 20th-century Polish saint, St. Luke's Productions brings their nationally touring "Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy" one-woman show for three performances in the Diocese of Buffalo in November.
St. Faustina was born Helena Kowalska in 1905, and despite the protests of her parents, traveled to Warsaw to become a nun with the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. She began experiencing visions of Jesus in 1930 and eventually created the devotion of Divine Mercy. She died in 1938 and was canonized by the Church in 2000.
Director and co-writer Leonardo Defilippis has produced many of these one-person religious shows through his company, St. Luke Productions. He knew of St. Faustina, but became more aware when many of his younger employees expressed an interest in her. After a production about Mother Teresa was delayed, Defilippis decided to tackle St. Faustina instead. He researched and wrote the production with his wife, Patti.
"It's a message that should be heard around the world," Defilippis said of his subject's Divine Mercy. "She's the first saint of the new millennium."
Defilippis notes that St. Faustina was canonized by Blessed John Paul II, who himself will be canonized on Divine Mercy Sunday, April 27, 2014.
St. Louis native Maria Vargo plays the title role. Vargo is not just an actress, she also works as an artistic director and producer for a faith-based theater in Los Angeles and as a singer-songwriter. She is a proud member of her Christian faith, producing a music album entitled "Fire Tries Iron." She speaks about abstinence and worked as a missionary in Uganda. She said St. Faustina's mission of mercy attracted her to the role.
"I had been aware of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, but I didn't know a lot about Faustina," Vargo said. "When I started thinking about the audition process, it's more about the message, not about the person. She was obviously a very special person, but God was using her spreading this message. It doesn't matter how bad your sins are, His mercy is waiting for us. What better message to spread?"
Although the production features only one actress on stage, "Faustina" includes multimedia presentation to give audiences a dynamic, 90-minute show.
"It's almost like doing a film, but it's interactive," Defilippis said. "That's only because of the uniqueness that a one-person show can do."
This is Vargo's first one-woman show, although she did a one-time performance as Mary, mother of Jesus, for a half hour.
"The one woman element of it is definitely a challenge, because you have to carry a show," she said. "It's challenging in some ways with this woman who is so holy, so special that I didn't necessarily look at it as a challenge, but as an opportunity to dive in with loving our Lord like she does. It has been beautiful to fall in love with Jesus every night as much as Jesus did."
Vargo said she was able to connect to St. Faustina by finding ways to relate to her, as well as reflecting upon her own life.
"I believe the best part of acting brings some of yourself to the role," she said. "From the readings I read about her, she was very cheerful about the lives of the saints. She had a very personable nature to her, and that's something that I carry as well. She wasn't afraid to call people out. She had courage."
"Faustina" not only tells the story of the Polish saint, but also a tale of a modern woman that offers a parallel to the audience.
"This modern character possesses qualities that a lot of our society does right now," Vargo said. "We're all so broken in so many ways, and there are elements of my personal story that are brought to the play. The modern element speaks to everybody. It's a story of a broken person who is really in need of mercy."
"It's been a labor of love," said Defilippis. "As we've done this, we discovered how to make this more accessible to the modern world. It's affecting people on a deep, deep level. We've noticed grown men weeping. I've been very fascinated about how the message of this has grown."
The reason why St. Luke's Productions creates one-person shows is because the costs to tour around the country are lower than it would be with a full cast. Even so, the production relies on the generosity of the audiences as every show is a free-will offering.
"We've been able to hang in there," said Defilippis, who has worked at St. Luke's Productions for 33 years. "A lot of this is donor driven. All of that replenishes to pay back the costs of putting it together. It's the investment. We're more and more expansive now because we're doing things for radio, the Internet and theater."
The response to "Faustina" has been extremely positive so far. The tour opened in Oregon and will continue throughout the school year. If "Faustina" continues to be popular, it could be one of St. Luke's rotating productions in the future.
"It could have a long shelf life and a possibility to go into other languages," Defilippis said. "There's a lot of interest in this particular story because it's the fastest growing spiritual movement (in the world)."
"This is a play for everyone," Vargo said. "I've had young people to teenagers, to elderly people. I've seen everybody be touched in a way that is beyond my imagination. This is something that God really is using to touch hearts."
For more information visit the St. Luke's Productions.
"Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy"
Production is suitable for ages 12 and up
All admission is a free-will offering
Monday, Nov. 11, 7 p.m.
SS. Peter & Paul Parish Center
68 East Main St., Hamburg
Tuesday, Nov. 12, 7 p.m.
Blessed Sacrament Church
263 Claremont Ave., Tonawanda
Thursday, Nov. 14, 7 p.m.
Our Lady of Mercy Parish Center
44 Lake St., LeRoy