Thérèse: The Story of a Soul is one of the latest plays from Leonardo Defilippis' St. Luke Productions, but its roots actually extend back to 1980, and to the very beginning of that theatrical ministry. At that time, Defilippis and his wife Patti shared a devotion to St. Thérèse of Lisieux and enjoyed a friendly relationship with the Carmelite monastery near their Oregon home. The sisters there encouraged him to write a play about the life of the French saint, Thérèse.

Defilippis liked the idea, but there was one problem: “Patti was to play the role [of Thérèse], but she got pregnant,” he explains. “We couldn't keep having a pregnant Thérèse up there every other year. So we did John of the Cross instead.”

Defilippis'one-man production of that great Carmelite saint first played in 1990. In the years before and since, he would gain acclaim for his solo portrayals of the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Maximilian Kolbe, along with many others. But the Thérèse project still beckoned and so did the nuns.

In 1996, the Carmelite sisters “cornered me again,” says Defilippis, and urged him to produce a play about St. Thérèse in preparation for the centennial celebration of her death. This time both he and his wife followed through, crafting a script based on Thérèse's autobiography The Story of a Soul. They enlisted one of the nuns to write the orchestral score and selected 19-year-old Maggie Mahrt for the title, and only, role.

Opening night was scheduled for Sept. 28, 1997, and by the time the play reached Peoria, Ill., last November, Mahrt had already given more than 100 performances of Thérèse in 22 states. Her depiction of the saint, the overall tenor of the production — script, music and set — is both studied and modest, prayerful and unpretentious.

Three pillars, covered in black cloth, form the only background for the hour-long show. Flanking pillars bear images of the Holy Face and the Child Jesus and a center pillar has a simple cross covered with Thérèse's trademark roses. (The roses were a providential addition, explains Mahrt, used to hide burn marks left by the lights during an early performance.) Some wooden chairs and a blanket complete the spare set.

Thérèse opens with the saint, near death as a result of tuberculosis at the age of 24, preparing the reflections that would become The Story of a Soul. Her life then unfolds as a flashback, recounting well-known episodes like her childhood fast for the soul of a murderer about to be executed and her charitable efforts to befriend a particularly unlovable fellow nun.

Mahrt works well in dialogues with the taped voices of other characters — a trick that demands precision, pace and timing.

Along with the loosely connected flashback scenes, Defilippis has interspersed scriptural meditations drawn from the “suffering servant” passages of Isaiah 42. The combined effect gives the audience a glimpse into the heart of a human being drawn through love and suffering into a profound union with Christ.

Acting As Prayer

Portraying this inner transformation is not easy, and Mahrt insists that she wouldn't have been able to carry it off were Thérèse simply any play and the saint merely another character. “To me, it's a prayer,” she says, a sacred drama in which “contemplation and acting are married together.”

Indeed, three years ago, after she had become dissatisfied with her theater studies at an Illinois junior college, Mahrt began to sense her own inclinations toward a contemplative life. Her spiritual director deflected her (at least temporarily) from the convent, urging her instead to audition for Thérèse. This she did. Her first quick audition was at the Chicago airport terminal while Defilippis was waiting to change planes. She later did a lengthier, more formal audition. Defilippis recalls being impressed by “her concentration and depth of spirituality. … Thérèse is tough as nails, and Maggie has a little bit of that in her.”

Defilippis and Mahrt both agree that the spiritual character of the actress is important because she serves as much the role of missionary as entertainer. Mahrt plays to audiences averaging 400 people but swelling to as high as 1,500. After performances she personally greets all comers. “Everybody is very positive,” she says. “They thank me, tell me they really needed to hear the message of God's merciful love [and] they share stories of how Thérèse has affected their lives.”

The performance in Peoria attracted much attention. The audience thronged around Mahrt, offering her flowers and rosaries, hugging her and shaking her hand. The fact that Peoria is only a short distance from Mahrt's native Metamora may have given her a hometown-girl boost, although this kind of reception isn't too far from the ordinary and fits right into Defilippis'artistic and evangelistic philosophy.

“Maggie is the incarnation of Thérèse,” he says. “In sacred drama, you are entering the realm of being an icon of who you are portraying.” Defilippis says his ministry exists in order to preach the gospel, but in a way that “communicates truth with beauty.” Art communicates truth and when it communicates the highest truth it becomes “an affirmation of Jesus becoming flesh and dwelling among us,” says Defilippis. Art like Thérèse takes on a sacramental character, helping to effect what it represents.

Defilippis is basing his next project on the Gospel of St. John and hopes to have it ready for the millennium. In the meantime, the stage production of Thérèse will run through to July. Eventually there are hopes that the production will be followed by a film version. Defilippis hopes that many people will be moved by the story of Thérèse of Lisieux, whose broad appeal and powerful yet simple message makes her an important witness for this age.

“I hope it goes into the Protestant world, and into the secular arena,” he says. “Wouldn't it be nice if, right next to [the controversial homosexual activist play] Corpus Christi on Broadway, we could have Thérèse?”

Todd M. Aglialoro writes from Peoria, Illinois.