When offered the role of Mother Teresa in the upcoming Acacia Theatre Company production “Malcolm and Teresa,” Glenna Gustin said to the director, “I am honored – and timorous.”
After all, as Gustin, a member of St. Catherine of Alexandria Parish on North 76th Place in Milwaukee, asked rhetorically in an interview with your Catholic Herald, “Who can play Mother Teresa?” The so-called “Saint of the Gutters” was not only a real person, as opposed to a fictional character, but she was a universally revered individual beatified by the Catholic Church.
“How much do I try to (imitate) Mother Teresa and how much do I try to capture just a sense of her?” is a question Gustin said has been on her mind since before rehearsals began in early September.
In an attempt to extract maximal meaning from her lines, Gustin “read and reread the play.” She also viewed video recordings of Mother Teresa – and decided she wants to deliver onstage a bit of the “interesting dialect” of the native Albanian who ministered in India but learned to speak English in Ireland.
The drama, written by Irish-born Cathal (Gaelic for Charles and pronounced “Cal”) Gallagher, “is really Malcolm Muggeridge’s play,” according to Gustin. Elaine Rewolinski, lifetime parishioner at St. Veronica Parish, Milwaukee, and director of Acacia’s production, agreed.
“‘Malcolm and Teresa’ focuses on Muggeridge’s struggle of faith and religion,” the director noted.
Thomas Malcolm Muggeridge was, among other things, a television personality in Great Britain. He conducted an interview program in the 1960s and, when evangelist Billy Graham’s guest appearance on one episode fell through, a Muggeridge assistant lined up “some nun or other” as a replacement.
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Program guests were “usually very eminent persons,” playwright Gallagher told your Catholic Herald in an email, and Muggeridge “had little interest in talking to a nun – a then unknown Mother Teresa. Little did he realize this ‘some nun or other’ would be a life-changing experience.”
By the midway point of the interview, Gustin related, Muggeridge was deeply affected by the diminutive sister who matter-of-factly reported her order’s amazing efforts in aiding nearly 10,000 lepers and moving more than 20,000 individuals off the streets of Calcutta.
Through additional interviewing, a book and a documentary film, Muggeridge brought the founder of the Missionaries of Charity to the world’s attention. And the nun’s example, her practice of seeing Christ in her fellow beings, ultimately brought onetime agnostic Muggeridge to the Catholic faith.
“One major theme in the play revolves around the examination of faith and redemption amid a culture that is skeptical (as Muggeridge was) of institutional religion,” Rewolinski said. “‘Malcolm and Teresa’ reminds me that, as Christians, it is essential to help the seed of faith grow in others and walk together with those who seek to understand our faith.
“But another major theme is the world’s view on poverty and the poor. The play puts the poor right before our eyes with Mother Teresa, and our production will augment her experiences with the poor with photographic images and scenic projections. The use of media such as television, radio and newsprint will provide a majority of the scenic backdrop.”
Asked what he would like playgoers to take away from “Malcolm and Teresa,” Gallagher, a longtime resident of San Jose, Calif., wrote, “I would hope they appreciate characters who stand for some principle or belief at great personal cost. Malcolm’s exposé of famine in (the) Ukraine (a ‘Malcolm and Teresa’ subplot) cost him dearly – ostracized by family, friends and some of the most prominent literary figures of the era.”
In seeking characters for his plays, Gallagher added, “I look for heroic figures – men and women who stand against the current of their time. Both Malcolm and Teresa fit this genre.” The former, in fact, has been quoted as expressing such independent behavior with the observation that “only dead fish swim with the stream.”
Personages in previous Gallagher plays have included St. Padre Pio, Mexican martyr Blessed Miguel Pro and communist-battling Hungarian Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty.
A Catholic, Gallagher founded the Catholic Quo Vadis Theatre Company in the San Jose area in 1995 and, more recently, with his son Peter, the G.K. Chesterton Theatre Company in Los Angeles. In 2009, “Malcolm and Teresa” was the first production of the Chesterton Company, whose productions emphasize the faith/culture dichotomy.
“I look upon playwriting as an apostolate,” Gallagher said in his email. “A Hollywood insider made the statement, ‘The entertainment industry is shaping the worldview of our youth.’ This is a frightening statement and should be a wake-up call to all Christians, especially our bishops. The answer, however, is not to beg Hollywood for decent films. They won’t respond. The answer is for every city to have an Acacia Theatre or a G.K. Chesterton Theatre. But these theatres need support from the churches, particularly from pastors and people in the pews.”