"Last Supper" play is act of faith

With sight gone and sound fading, a local actor-director finds live religious theater stimulates his sense of spirit

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 
photo“When I do drama, I don’t do halfway, I don’t do maybe. I have high-level expectations for actors. I know what I want done.” Matthew Shively Director and actor in Christian dramas

Believing in yourself can be so hard.

So these 13 guys show up at an artist’s studio to model for a big painting. The painter, a dude named Leo, has the requisite looping mustache and a slightly impatient manner. Maybe his models find him a little bit intimidating. Most of them aren’t so happy with their parts to begin with.

Why do I have to be the doubting Thomas? Why do I have to be Matthew, the tax collector? Why do I have to be the utterly reviled Judas?

Leo tries sorting out their problems and posing them at a long supper table for the scene he means to depict. But it’s the last model in the bunch -- the one playing a guy named Jesus -- who manages to talk them through their insecurities and prove to each one that he’s indispensable.

Leo is Leonardo da Vinci, of course, and he’s being portrayed by Matt Shively, who’s also directing this Easter offering at the Minnehaha Church of Christ. The play is “Transformation -- A Living Last Supper,” by Rachel C. Hoyer, and it puts a comic spin on the ensuing mayhem as da Vinci struggles to line up (and buck up) his models for what will become one of his greatest creations.

You could say Shively, like the models he’s pretending to direct (in the play that he’s really directing) has been handed an uncomfortable role in life. He was born with Usher syndrome II, a rare genetic disorder that causes degeneration of the eyesight and hearing. It didn’t flare up until Shively was in his 20s; now 51, Shively says he has been “completely in the dark” for the last three years.

His hearing isn’t quite as gone, he said; it’s functioning at about 15 percent capacity. (One brother who shares Usher syndrome has had a cochlear implant, which has helped his hearing; Shively may opt for that in the future, he said.)

Because of these disabilities, Shively long ago left his graphic design work at the former Viewmaster plant in Beaverton, Ore. But he never stopped volunteering as the drama director for the Minnehaha church, where he’s been for many years.

And it’s particularly impressive to watch the tall and imposing Shively, decked out with powerful hearing aids and Braille script, coach his cast of amateur actors toward confidence.

“Stronger,” is what he kept urging actors who mumbled their lines. He noted a prop sword in the production and added: “There is a sword behind you to encourage you to project. We’re doing a real play here!” He gave advice about waiting out audience laughter and always staying in character.

“When I do drama, I don’t do halfway. I don’t do maybe,” Shively told The Columbian. “I have high-level expectations for actors. I know what I want done.” He has to rely on his cast and crew to help him out, he said, but only to a point. “Now that I am totally blind, I need to turn to other people, but I make the final decisions,” he said.

“Let’s get into character,” Leo tells his models as he begins assembling his timeless tableau.

Their earthy response: “Let’s eat!”

One performance only is planned for “Transformation -- A Living Last Supper.” It’s free and set for 10:45 a.m. on Easter Sunday, April 8, at Minnehaha Church of Christ, 3217 N.E. 54th Street. Call 360-694-5725 for information, or visit http://minnehahachurch.org.

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; facebook.com/reporterhewitt; twitter.com/col_nonprofits.