LARKSVILLE — In previous Christmas plays at St. John the Baptist Church, members of the Singer family have portrayed shepherds, kings and innkeepers.
On Christmas Eve, real-life spouses Scott and Lucy Singer, of Larksville, have the challenge of portraying a woman who dies at Christmastime and her devastated husband.
“He kind of reminds me of Job,” Lucy Singer said, naming a biblical character famous for enduring a great deal of suffering.
The protagonist in the play — Jack is the name the playwright, church pastor the Rev. Gerald Gurka gave him — similarly seems to have more than his share of affliction. A few years after he loses his wife to pneumonia, he loses his young daughter in a car accident and is left with a gold-wrapped box of her imaginary kisses.
By that point, Scott Singer said, the character is angry.
“I’d be angry too. First you take my wife? Then you take my daughter? Enough is enough,” Scott Singer said. “But he never gives up. He continues to go to church.”
Since the early 1980s, Gurka, or “Father Jerry” as he is affectionately known, has written dozens of plays, most of them for parishioners and friends to stage during the Christmas or Easter seasons.
His latest play, based on a short story he found online in a collection of Christmas tales, is set during the Great Depression at a fictional parish he calls St. Rudolph’s, where tragedy hits a family who had been generous with each other and with the poor.
“The Gold Wrapping Paper: Living Nativity 2017” has an air of melancholy, but that hasn’t dimmed the enthusiasm of the production’s participants.
“One of our young ‘angels’ told me, ‘It’s morbid, but I love it,’” Gurka said.
Moments later, 9-year-old Gianna Gabel, already wearing her white angel robe and wings for a dress rehearsal last weekend, confirmed that’s how she felt, even though the thought of death makes her feel “a little scared” and “a little upset.”
“It’s an unfortunate fact of life we all have to deal with,” said Jeremy Shrawder, of Larksville, who serves as narrator for the production. “As much as you want to hold onto people, you can’t.”
Sooner or later, cast members said, everyone experiences the pain of separation.
“My dad passed away on Dec. 9 a couple years ago,” Lucy Singer recalled. “That first Christmas without him, there was a huge emptiness.”
Shrawder described missing his grandmother, who used to cook Christmas dinner with him, and his uncle, who used to bring homemade kielbasa to family feasts. “But as long as you remember (loved ones who passed away) you’ll still have them with you,” Shrawder said.
Gurka, who lost his father, mother and brother, added that he has found it is therapeutic to honor deceased loved ones by continuing the traditions he used to enjoy with them.
“Putting up the Christmas tree (several years ago, during the holiday season after his mother died) was painful, but it’s important to continue your life as usual,” Gurka said. “Go back to what you enjoyed with your relatives. It can be a different kind of healing.”
“You can feel alone, but you’re not eternally alone,” Gurka continued, pointing to the comfort of believing in the hereafter. “Jesus would have been just another baby if he didn’t come to die and rise again.”
The playwright priest said he had been planning to write “a lighthearted play” this year about a Christmas “Legend of the Birds.”
Then he reconsidered, believing it was time to address the all-too-human topic of mortality, and he gave lines to members of the Holy Family that explain how they understand Jack’s pain.
Joseph, in keeping with an old legend, describes himself as being a widower before he married Mary, and Mary, for her part, says she lost Joseph “when Jesus was only a teenager.”
“I was frightened to raise my son alone,” Mary continues. “And then I would lose my only son to a brutal Crucifixion, which he didn’t deserve. But Jesus rose from the dead. There is life after death.”
“You will see your wife and daughter again,” she promises Jack. “And their kisses will be real.”