The Catholic Lights Are Bright Off Broadway

Dramatist brings Pope John Paul’s plays to the Great White Way.

As artistic director of the Storm Theatre in Manhattan, Peter Dobbins knows quality playwriting when he reads it. That’s why he decided to launch The Karol Wojtyla Theatre Festival, spotlighting — literally and figuratively — dramatic works written by Pope John Paul II.

Dobbins’ production company staged The Jeweler’s Shop and God’s Brother last spring. This month will see the opening runs of Job and Jeremiah on Oct. 9 and Oct. 26, respectively. (For information on the October shows, or to buy tickets, go to or call 212-330-8350.) He spoke with Register correspondent John Pilsner.

What drew you to theater?

I always liked film, especially classic cinema, but then I drifted into theater while attending Temple University. As a performer, I could attract the most attention, and that’s what I wanted at the time. When I entered the graduate program in drama at Southern Methodist University, the sexual revolution was in full swing. I was swept up in the arts world and I wound up leaving the Catholic Church, even though I never stopped believing.

What was it that led to your return?

My whole world had fallen apart, and I needed God just to stand up and walk again. Within several months, I was getting lead roles in Forth Worth and Dallas. Then I fell deeply in love. Even though the relationship was short-lived, I understood the Church’s moral teaching for the first time.

From there, I followed a path that many others have. I read C.S. Lewis, then Chesterton — his book Orthodoxy really changed my life. The Catholic faith offered me a complete philosophy rather than the scattered prejudices and arbitrary judgments I had encountered in the “orthodoxy” of the arts world.

How did you decide to start a theater of your own?

I started thinking to myself that I ought to put my talents to greater use. I didn’t like the modern twists and sensibilities many directors impose on classic drama, like Shakespeare, in order to make a name for themselves. I wanted the contemporary audience to be challenged, not by using plays to make my own statement but by allowing great works to speak for themselves. So I decided to create an entirely new space.

When did you first take notice of John Paul II’s dramas?

I first read them 20 years ago, while I was a student at SMU. By chance, I walked into a Christian bookstore and found a copy of Boleslaw Taborski’s edition. When I read the plays, I was amazed. I thought they were incredibly interesting but also completely unstageable. Much later, I decided to sit down with a group of actors and read through The Jeweler’s Shop. The script took on a very different life. It was funny, light, beautiful. It wasn’t perfect theater, but it was clear to us that John Paul knew exactly what he was doing.

How did you come to decide that this year would be the right moment to stage his plays?

It’s a basic rule in show business that you need an event. The festival was in the planning stages when John Paul became gravely ill. After his death, I decided to wait for a year. It was a period of loss for the world. I knew the plays would get publicity but I also wanted to be certain that they would work as theater.

The Jeweler’s Shop is about the mystery of marriage and how romantic love mirrors God’s love for us. It is timeless but it is also modern. Yes, it is intellectual, but the ideas are portrayed in story and character.

You can’t stop and meditate on any one line, as you might do when you’re reading it. This is what makes the drama more visceral.

God’s Brother was written by John Paul during the year he left the theater world to enter the seminary. Is this play autobiographical?

Yes, very much so. It represents a dark night of the soul and a period of discernment. Like John Paul, Adam Chmielowski started out as a Polish freedom fighter and an artist. He thought about the communist solution, but he couldn’t overcome his compelling desire to help the poor through love instead of righteous anger. This desire eventually led him to religious life.

How would you describe the feedback you’ve gotten from audiences?

For the first time in Storm’s 10-year history, I have seen a genuine Catholic audience emerge. I wasn’t exactly screaming “I’m Catholic,” but people began to come out of the woodwork. Unlike the average theater audience, they really wanted to hear what John Paul had written. Many people were clearly amazed by the theatrical experience.

What insights can you give us into Job and Jeremiah?

John Paul wrote these plays for the Rhapsodic Theater when was only 20 years old. Already he was like a Catholic Aeschylus, assimilating Athens and Jerusalem into his vision of a Polish national culture.

He combined Old Testament figures and narratives with aspects of ancient Greek theater to form microcosms for the suffering of Poland under Nazi occupation.

Like other artists in occupied countries, he learned to write in code. The problem for us is that we don’t always have the key.

Will you tell us about some of your plans for the near future?

Besides Job and Jeremiah, there will be a command performance of The Jeweler’s Shop as part of a weekend conference sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York. In December, we are producing a rare Chesterton play called The Surprise, about a friar’s encounter with a traveling puppet-master. After that, we are planning to perform some of the works of Paul Claudel, author of The Satin Slipper and The Tidings Brought to Mary.

John Pilsner writes from

New York City.

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