Friday, August 28, 2009

Actor portrays Father Damien as priest's Canonization nears

Television and theater actor Casey Groves had an epiphany near a rivulet nine years ago while re-reading the one-man play he performed as a high school senior at De La Salle High School in New Orleans about Hawaii's Catholic hero, Father Damien.

"I was working down at The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., for a year and a half, and we were cranking out play after play," said the 38-year-old thespian and adjunct theater professor at St. Peter's College in New Jersey, whose television credits include "Damages" with Glenn Close, "Law and Order," and "One Life to Live," where he has a recurring role as a policeman. On a whim, he took out his "Damien" script, written by Aldyth Morris, based on the true story of a Belgian missionary priest who ministered to people suffering from leprosy at an isolated settlement on the Hawaiian Island of Molokai in the 1800s. Blessed Damien --- who died at age 49 from leprosy which he contracted after years of serving his quarantined flock --- will be canonized a saint on Oct. 11. "I read the script sitting by this little stream that runs through D.C. and I just started crying," said Groves, a college theater major who has a master's in religious studies from Holy Names College in Oakland and an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College in Vermont.

His recurring thoughts of performing the play again got a boost when, on a visit to New York, he happened to see an article in Back Stage magazine about actors exploring spirituality in religious-themed productions. Intrigued, he contacted an off-Broadway theater housed in a church which had an Episcopal nun producer. "It turns out Father Damien was a huge hero of hers from when she was in high school," said Groves. "She offered me the theater for free --- an $8,000 a week theater and gave me two weeks in October of 2000. Father Damien's order (Congregation of the Sacred Hearts) gave me a grant for seed money for the production. That's how it all happened."

Since that first off-Broadway production of Damien, he has performed the play nationally more than 100 times, including throughout the Hawaiian Islands where he married his actress/singer wife, Rachel Whitman, in a ceremony at the leprosy settlement in 2006. During his 2009 Hawaiian Islands tour in April and May, he did 21 performances of Damien in 19 days. The director of Damien, Jesuit Father George Drance, is artistic director of the Magis Theatre Company, which has featured Groves in several of its productions. "With Damien's canonization coming, I made a decision to give myself over to the play for the fall," said Groves, who performed the play last week at archdiocesan parishes, including St. Basil in Los Angeles, Holy Name of Mary in San Dimas and Our Lady of the Assumption in Santa Maria.

He will return to California in October to perform in the presence of Father Damien's relic at St. Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco and at St. Joseph Church in Alameda, where the relic will be housed en route to Hawaii from Rome. He also hopes to bring the play to more Southern California churches and schools to heighten awareness about the newly-canonized saint. "My intention in getting my master's in religious studies was to do theater that spoke to the soul," said Groves, adding that he wanted to be a part of creating theater that brings healing and transformation in people's lives. "That's what this play is all about to me, taking what's difficult and changing it into something beautiful."

For more information about Casey Groves' one man show about Damien, call Sister of Social Service Gail Young in the archdiocesan Office of Justice and Peace, (213) 637-7690, or contact the actor at (917) 969-8698 or
By Paula Doyle
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