Seattle, Wash., Jun 24, 2014 / 04:07 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A once-obscure nun from 1930s Poland would probably be surprised to find that she is the subject of a play travelling all across the United States in 2014.
But popular demand was what ultimately drove Leonardo Defilippis, founder of St. Luke productions, to create “Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy”.
“It’s amazing how there’s an interest in her. She was kind of hidden (in her life), but Divine Mercy is probably the fastest growing devotion in the entire world,” he said.
“When I saw that young people were really into her and they had a devotion to her, I said I need to be open to doing a play on Faustina.”
The one-woman, two hour show tells the story of St. Faustina Kowalska, who at a young age joined the sisters of Our Lady of Mercy, and who received visions and messages from Christ which she inscribed in a diary. Christ asked her to tell the whole world about his message of mercy, which would prepare mankind for the end of the world.
While the saint died at the age of 33, she had already filled hundreds of pages with the words Christ spoke to her, which is now a published volume entitled “Divine Mercy in My Soul.” In 2000, St. John Paul II canonized her, instituted the Feast of Divine Mercy, and helped to spread devotion to the Divine Mercy image and chaplet.
Featuring Maria Vargo as Faustina, the play shows the joys and great struggles the saint endured in her life as a mystic. Woven into the play is also a modern story of healing and forgiveness in the life of a young woman who learns about Divine Mercy.
“I love what Jesus said about the chaplet – that even the most hardened sinner would receive grace if he prayed the chaplet one time,” said Vargo. “I think the show is super powerful in showing that we can pray for everyone and that our sacrifice and pain is worth something if we unite it to his pain and suffering.”
What also makes “Faustina” a powerful story is that it forces people to face the reality that they will someday die and meet Jesus, Defilippis said.
“The biggest taboo in our culture is death. No one wants to deal with death. But that is the ultimate reality,” Defilippis said. “And I think Faustina is an incredible sign right now to help us deal with what we call our passing, and that’s why I think this play is so exciting.”
The actress said she had always prayed the chaplet with her family and knew of Divine Mercy Sunday, but it wasn’t until she auditioned for the role of the saint that she really began learning about St. Faustina. Once Vargo landed the role, Defilippis sent her to spend a week with sisters from the same order as Faustina who live in Dorchester, Mass.
“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh I don’t know about this, for an entire week? What am I going to do?’” Vargo said, “But by the end of it I was crying because I had to leave.”
Vargo was encouraged to pursue acting and performing after a grade school teacher complimented her singing voice. Several years into her acting career after high school and college, she had a deeper conversion in her faith.
“That made me want to do things that glorified God,” Vargo said. For a few years, Vargo set acting aside to write and record original Christian music. She then was working for a faith-based theater company when a friend told her about auditions for “Faustina”.
While Vargo interacts with characters who appear on a screen during the play, she said being the only live actress on stage was an adjustment.
“It took a lot of trusting in the Lord,” she admitted. “I’m used to working with actors that are there in the flesh, and I had to make it look and feel as believable as possible that I’m having a living, breathing experience with this screen.”
Defilippis said he often creates small shows with just one or two actors, to make the plays more accessible. A small set and cast allows the productions to be staged in smaller venues such as churches and nursing homes, which is cheaper, and likely to attract a wider audience.
Defilippis has seen his plays impact people in both extraordinary, and more ordinary ways.
“I’ve had blind people being able to see a show, and then they revert back, but they actually saw the show. God gave them the grace to do that. Many things have happened that are strange, but also very common,” Defilippis said, adding that he’s heard of people who name their child after seeing a play about a certain saint or who have met their future spouse at a show.
The Faustina show in particular has forced people to confront places in their lives where they need forgiveness and healing, Defilippis said.
“We have a huge uptick of confessions happening when they leave (the show), which is amazing to think about that a play is increasing the sacraments,” Defilippis said.
Vargo said she hoped that the audience would come away from the play knowing “that they are so loved and so special that Our Lord would do anything for them, and it’s never too late to be forgiven for anything that you’ve done.”
For future plays, Defilippis is looking into a variety of saints – John Paul II, Benedict, Mother Teresa and Clare, to name a few. He said while his production studio has dabbled in other art forms such as film, he believes live drama has the most powerful impact on an audience.
“It does something to you that movie can’t do because you’re right there in the moment, and it really touches you. You’re in a way having a more incarnational experience where for a moment you feel like…you’re really seeing the saint,” he said. “It’s kind of like, ‘would rather see Jesus on film or would you rather see him in person?’”
The power of a live performance is also something Vargo has seen affect herself and her audiences.
“Someone came up to me after a show and said, ‘You’re not acting, you’re living it.’ And that’s how I feel, I’ve put my whole heart and soul into it. I give it everything I have,” Vargo said.
“Faustina: Messenger of Divine Mercy” will continue to tour the United States through the spring of 2015.