GLORIFYING THE HUMAN SPIRIT
QUO VADIS DRAMA TELLS OF TRIUMPH
OF ALTRUISM OVER ALCOHOLISM
NORA VILLAGRAN, Mercury News Staff Writer
IN THIS era of cinematic violence and TV trash talk, San Jose's Quo Vadis Theatre Company offers audiences something unusual.
A Catholic theater company, Quo Vadis aims to produce family-oriented plays with moral messages and universal appeal.
''Stories about inspiring, courageous people can help mold minds and shape character in positive ways,'' says playwright Cathal Gallagher, one of the company's founders. ''I believe audiences want to see what is noble in human beings, rather than what is destructive. The Judeo-Christian ethic is being replaced by the 'Jerry Springer Show.' We, as artists, have a responsibility to put on plays that enrich and ennoble the human spirit.''
With these goals, the company is presenting Gallagher's new play, ''A Fiddler in Granby Lane,'' based on the life of Matt Talbot, an alcoholic in Dublin, Ireland, at the turn of the century who strove to overcome his fierce addiction through faith and service to others. The production opens Wednesday at the Sunnyvale Community Center and continues through May 29.
''Fiddler'' is the second production for the company, co-founded in 1996 by Gallagher and run by volunteers.
In the drama, Talbot helps steal a violin from a fiddler to sell for drinking money. Later, filled with remorse, he seeks out the musician to repay him. The story explores the roles of conscience and restitution in redemption from past transgressions. Talbot serves as a role model for how one can escape alcoholism or other human downfalls.
It's a play, says assistant director Pat Cross, that ''goes beyond religion. Even at the lowest rung, you can bring your life around.'' It's a play parents can see with their teenagers, who may be facing adolescent temptations, adds Cross, 52.
''Matt Talbot's life revolved around alcohol from the age of 13,'' she says. ''But at 28, he made a dramatic change and went on to help a! nd positively influence others. Long before AA and self-help programs, he did this with his own faith and determination.''
The cast, directed by Rick Frank, features Michael Kane, Mary Elizabeth O'Connor, Sinead Mahoney, Karie Vaughan, Ted Hatrak, Paula Mahoney, Joe Parks, Todd O'Donnell, Dan O'Connell and Mark Lynch as Talbot.
Like Talbot, Lynch comes from Dublin. ''It's been tough and emotional at times (in rehearsals),'' says the actor, ''because alcoholism is something many people in Ireland have either witnessed or experienced in their own family.''
Now living in San Francisco, Lynch, 25, chuckles over the thousands of miles he crossed to distance himself from his Irish Catholic roots, only to be portraying an Irish alcoholic who turns to his faith for redemption.
''I always had issues with Catholicism, growing up,'' says Lynch, an exhibition design director. ''So it's kind of strange to (be in rehearsal) and be saying the prayers in the play I've said myself along the way -- though it's been quite a long time ! since I've said them.''
Lynch sees the play's message as one of hope. ''It's also about how one person's actions can affect a whole family -- and others, as well,'' he says.
Getting people thinking and talking about faith was part of Gallagher's vision when he thought of starting the company. ''We have something unique in the Catholic Church -- great dramas about Joan of Arc, Thomas More and (Thomas a) Becket -- and I wanted to put these stories on the stage,'' he says.
Gallagher, 60, comes from Ireland's rural County Donegal. ''We are a people known for two things: our social conscience and our literary ability. I thought I'd put them to good use and write plays.''
The company's name comes from the biblical quote attributed to St. Peter, says Gallagher. ''Quo vadis means, 'Where are you going?' ''
Gallagher's first play for Quo Vadis was ''The Pearl of York,'' about a 16th-century woman who became a Catholic martyr. It was also directed by Frank.
The company is not affiliated wit h a particular Catholic diocese, but rehearsals often take place at St. Frances Cabrini in San Jose and St. Joseph of Cupertino Church. Members of the board of directors are Catholic, he says, ''so we can keep our vision of what we want to produce. But the cast can be of any faith or no faith.''
''The company's goals,'' he adds ''are family entertainment without profanity -- and entertainment you can learn something from. I know this runs against the popular culture. But some of the language you hear in plays and movies today -- you wouldn't hear from a dockworker; my apologies to dockworkers.
''We believe you can show conflict and tension in a play without resorting to the f-word. You can bring your grandmother to our plays, and she won't be offended.''