"The Miracle of Father Kapaun," an original two-act drama that will be given its world premiere next weekend at Newman University, was almost a case of the cart coming before the horse, says director Jean Ann Cusick.
Cusick and other longtime Wichita performers had talked for years about forming a dynamic readers theater group that would let its shows be used as community fundraisers. But they needed the right vehicle to get started.
Cusick remembered seeing the award-winning newspaper series by Wichita Eagle reporter Roy Wenzl about Father Emil Kapaun, a Kansas priest who died in a Korean War POW camp. Kapaun has been nominated for sainthood for what some believe to be a modern miracle. Cusick brought up the idea to theater buddies Dick Welsbacher, Joyce Cavarozzi and Liz Henry Willis of turning the series into an original drama. Suddenly, the four had their impetus to launch The Vagabond Players.
"It was such a powerful and fascinating story that we wanted to give it additional life rather than let it be forgotten on some shelf," Cusick says. "We formed The Vagabond Players because we got permission from the newspaper and the Catholic Diocese to turn their material into an original theater piece. Everything fell right into place. I'm not even Catholic and I believe in the miracle."
Anne Welsbacher, a playwright and freelance magazine editor, was recruited to craft the drama in collaboration with her father, Dick Welsbacher, retired longtime head of Wichita State's theater department.
Welsbacher interwove Kapaun's experiences while a 1950s prisoner of war with the story of Chase Kear, a 20-year-old Kansas athlete who was not expected to survive after falling during a 2008 pole-vaulting accident at Hutchinson Community College. Kear's family believes that his recovery was due to hundreds of people praying to Father Kapaun to intercede.
"Our only restriction was that we couldn't fabricate any dialogue to put in the mouths of either Father Kapaun or Chase Kear," Welsbacher says. "We had to use direct quotes, which means that we didn't have a lot for Father Kapaun to say.
"But having such a restriction can free you up to be more creative. While Father Kapaun doesn't have much dialogue, he is a constant and strong physical presence while others provide narration and observations to tell his story."
The playwright says the project really came to life for her when she met Chase Kear and his family: father, mother and two brothers.
"Until I met them, I wasn't sure I had enough interesting things for their roles to say. But afterward, I had tons of juicy material. They really inspired me. That's when it began to take shape for me," Welsbacher says. "Chase is busy from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day in his job as a coach, and he's a weight lifter at night. This kid who was supposed to die is now so busy he barely had time to squeeze me in to talk."
Welsbacher credits Wenzl with making her adaptation smooth and easy.
"Roy did such a great job of organizing a mountain of material. He used a lot of narration. His words and descriptions were so good that I felt almost like I was plagiarizing when I lifted them for the show," she says. "But Roy assured me that was just fine."
According to their agreement, Wenzl had final approval of the script.
"I'm pretty much a news guy, so the script was very different from something I would write. It's a whole different form," says Wenzl, whose stories won two national writing awards and a handful of regional and state awards. "It's fine with me because the story resonates forward regardless of how it's told."
Portraying Father Kapaun is Bill Coleman, a WSU grad who moved back to Wichita a year ago and is now a faculty member at Northfield School. Portraying Chase Kear is Cooper Rowe, a senior at Wichita Collegiate who, as an eighth-grader, starred in the first local production of Disney's "High School Musical."
Providing a variety of male voices, from Korean POWs to various family members and friends, are Keith Boyer, a full-time actor with Wichita ties now living in Orlando, Fla., and Dick Welsbacher. Providing narration and a variety of female voices are Cavarozzi, retired longtime WSU theater faculty member, and Henry, local actress and former art history teacher.
Although the Kapaun project spurred creation of The Vagabond Players, the group tested its performance capabilities two weeks ago with a different show, a country comedy to benefit Old Cowtown Museum. The idea is for actors to discretely carry scripts on stage so there is no time wasted on memorization. They create their characters using only a smattering of costumes and props.
There are only two performances of "The Miracle of Father Kapaun" this weekend, but Cusick said there is already interest in the show at Fort Riley, where the chapel is named for Kapaun, and at Georgetown near the nation's capital, where Kapaun is being considered for a Medal of Honor, possibly to be bestowed as early as this fall.
If you go
"The Miracle of Father Kapaun"
What: Premiere of original readers theater work by The Vagabond Players to benefit Newman University Fine Arts theater program
Where: De Mattias Fine Arts Center on Newman campus
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday
How much: Tickets: show only, $20; dinner-show Saturday only, $75. Dinner at 6 p.m. Saturday in Dugan-Gorges Conference Center with guest speakers Eagle reporter Roy Wenzl and Joe Davison, Chase Kear's doctor. Available at 316-942-4291, ext. 2163, or online at www.themiracle.eventbrite.com