More drama, the good kind, awaits in special theater at Gilbert parish

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Actors, both newcomers and veterans, rehearse a scene from “A Man for All Seasons” March 2. The play about the life of St. Thomas More runs April 28-29 at St. Anne in Gilbert. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

GILBERT — The same parish that brought the “Footprints of God: The Path of Your Life” documentary to theaters nationwide and in at least seven countries is about to have a theater of its own.

‘A Man for All Seasons’ play

6:30 p.m., April 28-29

St. Anne, 440 E. Elliot Road, Gilbert

For ages 12 and up

Info: stanneaz.org/play

The stories won’t play out on a big screen, however. They’ll be live on stage and showcasing biblical truths, the lives of saints or other virtuous tales. “A Man for All Seasons,” which tells the story of St. Thomas More’s final months of life, opens April 28 as the premiere show at St. Anne.

The play created momentum and a hard deadline for a long-desired upgrade to the parish hall. Several staff members had dreamed about modernizing the mixed-use facility over the years. One thought about concerts and private functions while another thought of plays. All three occasions will likely get their turn in the spotlight.

The story of St. Thomas More is up first because of its stellar script and eternally relevant message, said Fr. Dan Vanyo, parochial vicar, who is directing his third church production — the first two at Queen of Peace in Mesa. “A Man for All Seasons” explores the moral dilemma St. Thomas More faced: follow his faithfully formed conscience or comply with popular opinion.

The play also became a natural extension of the religious skits and reenactments St. Anne parishioners were used to from Vacation Bible School plus Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations, Advent Adventures and, most recently, the Lenten experience. A Spanish-language play is in the works by the end of the year. Now audiences will have a better view of it all, thanks to some planning and what Mike Zazick sees as God’s guiding hand.

Transforming a church hall into a part-time, 215-seat theatrical venue with curtains and a fog machine could easily have been a costly project. St. Anne’s director of communications traded in old equipment collecting dust in a parish storage closet and got a break on track lighting at Mesa D.J. Center because the man helping him happened to have gotten married at the church 12 years ago.

Then there was the free labor to expand and paint the stage. Enter Barry Temple, Zazick’s longtime friend, who portrayed the Duke of Norfolk in the same play 30 years ago at Queen of Peace.

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“To listen to it brings it all back,” Temple said during the cast’s third rehearsal. A few actors came from Queen of Peace, but the majority belong to St. Anne.

Whether an acting veteran or novice, Fr. Vanyo hopes all 13 cast members — plus three “ninnies” providing comic relief — find awakened potential within them by opening night and grow closer to the Lord through the experience.

“The audience is going to be edified by something in the character or something in the theme to help them grow closer to Jesus Christ,” Fr. Vanyo said. It worked for him as an actor in six plays during seminary plus a seventh year as assistant director.

Fr. Dan Vanyo, left, parochial vicar at St. Anne Parish in Gilbert, reviews performance notes with the “A Man for All Seasons” cast March 2. The parish hall was revamped to expand its ability to share virtuous art. (Ambria Hammel/CATHOLIC SUN)

Simon Archer is keeping the audience particularly in mind as the Englishman portrays St. Thomas More. He knows many of the theater patrons will be able to personally relate to the saint’s struggles. Having seen England’s last executioner face to face, Archer can use that to better portray his own character’s emotions.

“It’s difficult to see the difference that More made by his stance, but he is an example of people doing the right thing,” Archer said.

Ray Girdler, who plays the Duke of Norfolk and a friend of the saint, recalled theater troupes helped illiterate people come to understand what the Church was about during St. Thomas More’s era. He hopes to do the same for today’s audience.

“In a performance, you can get a snapshot of who these people really are. It gives you a flesh-and-blood picture of this person you can relate to,” said Girdler. The professional programmer is in his third church play after only two-and-a-half years of being Catholic.

Ron Gengler is playing the “common man” and has already found a role model in St. Thomas More, “a man who never once turned his back on the Lord,” Gengler said, “something as a person I need to get in my heart.”