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Living Last Supper brings iconic scene, apostles to life

Brooke Kansier/Traverse City Record-Eagle (AP) • Apr 7, 2019 at 8:00 AM

TRAVERSE CITY — For Matt Stallman, letting the beard grow out was the hardest part.

Digging into St. Peter’s strong faith and character came easy.

“Peter, he’s a guy who very strongly loves and wants to be there for Jesus. But as strongly as he believes in Jesus, he really doesn’t believe in himself,” Stallman said. “He questions his integrity, he has these insecurities about him.”

Stallman, a parishioner at St. Francis Church in Traverse City, takes the role of the apostle Peter in an upcoming production of the Living Last Supper — a production that take parishioners of several local churches into the iconic scene in the days before Easter.

The event debuts at Traverse City’s Bethlehem Lutheran Church on April 12, and then runs at St. Ann Church in Cadillac on April 13, and again at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Traverse City on April 14.

The hour-long performances center around a moment in time at the Last Supper, and each apostle presents a three-minute monologue detailing their lives and what brought them to Christ.

“It starts at the time Christ says, ‘One of you will betray me,’” said Kathy Britten, Last Supper’s assistant director. “You can look at their faces — some of them anger, shock.”

The apostles begin to doubt themselves, each wondering if they could be the betrayer Jesus speaks of. Each monologue, she says, ends with “Is it I?”

“It becomes very reflective,” said Britten, whose husband, Curt, directs the show.

“You really get into the role and you become one with it — you think about what the apostles went through,” added Mike Wheaton, who takes the role of Simon the Zealot.

It’s Wheaton’s fourth performance — he’s taken roles as Michael, Nathaniel and Andrew in past years.

Wheaton said he relates to the lesser-known apostle’s warrior background.

“He comes across as a really tough guy, and then he finds Christ and changes his outlook,” said Wheaton, a lifelong Catholic and 26-year parishioner at Saint Patrick. “Being in the military, I bring that into it.”

The Living Last Supper aims to emulate Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic painting of the same name, taking inspiration from the Italian scenery and clothing it depicts.

The Renaissance painter and inventor created the piece in 1494 after being commissioned by the Duke of Milan.

The performers emulate the posing of their depicted apostle, holding that pose for several minutes during monologues.

“They joke with each other about who has the hardest pose to hold,” Britten said.

Stallman’s monologue begins with Peter’s life as a fisherman and quickly works its way into how important Jesus’ ministry was to his life.

“It gives me an opportunity to feel what he was going through at the time,” Stallman said.

Most of the cast, unlike Stallman, are parishioners of St. Patrick.

He got involved when the show’s director reached out during a group retreat, finding Stallman the perfect fit for Peter. The offer came at an opportune time.

Stallman, a born-and-raised Catholic, found himself falling away from his faith as a young adult. Only recently has he renewed that worship, getting more involved in his church by volunteering and attending extra events.

“It wasn’t really until my children were born and my marriage failed that I started to understand how much I needed God in my life,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of years, really, in search of acceptance. Once I re-attached myself to my faith, I found that’s where my acceptance really lies — in my faith and in God.”

His 12-year-old son, Benjamin, is also in the show. His non-speaking role involves delivering a pitcher of water Jesus uses to wash his apostles’ feet.

Both are working on getting over their nerves.

“I know it’s going to be fantastic and I feel the hand of God guiding us,” Stallman said. “But the butterflies are there for sure.”

Performances tend to fill church pews — Britten estimates each event draws crowds of around 200.

This is the first year the church will hold three events, she said. Past productions have been held in Gaylord and Cadillac, and the Sunday showing always occurs at St. Patrick.

Parishioner Joyce Odell started the Living Last Suppers in 1999 after a similar performance at her mother’s church proved inspiring. Church choirs provide music during the prelude and interludes. A brief reception ends each event — this year, they’re hosted by St. Patrick’s adult and elementary faith formations.

Britten said it’s never hard to build a cast.

“They are really excited to come back,” she said. “They don’t have experience on stage — it very much touches my heart that these are ordinary men, just as Christ collected his ordinary men.”

Each cast is a mix of new and returning performers. Their camaraderie is what drew Wheaton to get involved several years ago.

“I just think it’s an awesome ministry — it’s a tight-knit group,” he said. “The people involved are phenomenal and i just wanted to become a part of that.”

Stallman agrees. And the weekly Sunday rehearsals help.

“It’s just a fantastic group of guys,” he said. “We have a real brotherhood that’s developed.

“I know it’s going to be a fantastic thing.”

Admission is free, but free-will offerings are welcomed and go toward St. Patrick's faith formation groups.

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