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Here: On the South Side Slopes

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Photo by Annie O'Neill ~ Story by Bob Batz Jr.

Dolly Senn coaxes her niece, Samantha, 2, to say "Boze," the Polish name for Christ.
Click photo for larger image.

There is more than one "Passion" playing this week.

Mel Gibson's controversial epic "The Passion of the Christ" is getting all the publicity. By today -- just five days after opening -- it was expected to earn the roughly $30 million Gibson spent making what is becoming the biggest-ever box-office Bible film.

Meanwhile, one of the longest-running live Passion plays in the country opens today on the South Side Slopes, on not much more than the passion and prayers of its cast and crew and other supporters who worry that this year could be the last.

So the curtain rises on what they call the 85th season of "Veronica's Veil," which was first performed on Feb. 3, 1913, in St. Michael Auditorium on Pius Street.

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The play was an American take on the famous Oberammergau, Germany, drama of Christ's Passion (suffering), death and resurrection. It was written by a Pittsburgh priest who was a Passionist, the Catholic order devoted to honoring Christ's sufferings. The St. Michael's congregation performed it again in 1914, then mixed in other morality plays until relaunching "Veil" on an expanded stage in 1926.

Technically, this can only be "Veil's" 83rd season, but as play historian Bernard Switala says, "You're talking over 90 years of some kind of religious drama." Having been picked up by other Passionist churches around the country, and having become in its heydays a destination for busloads of viewers from around the region and beyond, the production earned its subtitle of "America's Passion Play."

Of course, America has changed, and so has this precariously hilly immigrant neighborhood. The old-fashioned melodrama already was threatened in the early 1990s when St. Michael's was merged with six other parishes. But the Veronica's Veil Players vowed that the show must go on -- to the point that last year they bought the century-old St. Michael school from the Pittsburgh Diocese for $1.

Some of them will tell you it was a bad deal. But then, this Lenten tradition isn't really about money.

So strapped is their nonprofit group that there was no hot water and no heat for Monday's final rehearsal.

But the 70 or so who came from the three rotating casts were unfazed, some practicing in their coats and hats.

Nell Davidson was a one-woman Passion play as she stamped her feet, waved her gloved hands and said, "It'd be crazy if this one died." She's one of the narrators, who have some of the biggest speaking roles in a show dominated by tableaux where the actors aren't even supposed to move.

Longtime director Tony Polito drove them with exhortations straight out of central casting ("This isn't a roller coaster, it's a crucifixion!") but had faith they'd be ready because "most people are repeating their roles anyway."

He estimates that at least 100 people are involved in putting on the show. Davidson has been deeply into it, down to baking shortbread for the concession bake sale, for four years. That makes her a rookie compared to most of them.

Adam Ripley, who's been in the play for 20 years, is one of the actors portraying Christ after taking two years off. He played the role for six years before that. "My father played Christ, and my brother played Christ, so it's kinda like a family tradition," says the 28-year-old bearded Beechview resident, who happens to work in construction.


"Veronica's Veil" opens at 2 p.m. today and runs Saturdays (except March 6) and Sundays through April 4 at the Veronica's Veil Auditorium, 44 Pius St., South Side. Tickets are $10 for adults and $8 for students (through high school) and seniors (age 62 and up). Dinners are available by reservation March 7 through April 3. For reservations and more information, call 412-431-5550.


Another of the alternating leads, Veronica -- the woman who, legend holds, compassionately wiped Christ's face with her veil -- is being played by South Sider Dolly Senn. The mill worker's daughter, who's soon to turn 53, started in the play when she was 10. All nine of her brothers and sisters were involved, as was her mother.

In this year's run, for which she's also saintly as Domitilla, she's joined by her 2-year-old niece, Samantha Senn, as well as a great-niece and great-nephew -- among the throng of children who play nameless Christians. Her nephew is Judas (and others). Her niece's grandfather, Mike Kirlin, also plays several roles in this, his 51st consecutive season. Switala, the historian, is one of several who grew up in the show and met their spouses here and are keeping the cycle going.

That's why they take the fate of this production so personally.

They're hoping the hype from the new movie will drive people to come see their version.

"Veronica's Veil" can't promise such striking visuals. As Switala says, "All the scenery that you see is basically from 1926." It does now have a sound system and some explosive effects that still can make the audience jump in their wooden folding seats. But unlike the film, there's not much that's shocking.

Director Polito, who has been with the play for more than four decades, says it has drawn just a few letters protesting its portrayal of Jews. Revisions over the years included rewriting of sections that could be seen as anti-Semitic. A man once walked out because of the gauzy costumes of the Roman emperor's dancing girls, but as Polito protests, "It's supposed to be an orgy!"

If "Veronica's Veil" could afford a marketing campaign, it could honestly advertise itself as a chance to go back in time and see Pittsburghers such as Dolly Senn again give their all in a turn-of-the-century religious drama that's not just acting.

After Monday's 21/2-hour rehearsal, Senn cuddled Samantha and promised she could go night-night as soon as they turned out the lights and put away Boze -- the Polish name Samantha and her family lovingly use for Christ.

She says the fringed satin veil painted with the image of Christ's bloody face is one of the original props, dating back at least to the 1920s. So they take extra care with it, locking it in the safe each night.

On this one, Senn handed the folded veil to her little niece to carry downstairs.

With a "night-night" for Boze, they went home.

Bob Batz Jr. can be reached at or 412-263-1930. Annie O'Neill can be reached at

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