‘Love thy neighbor' is more than an act for these players

| 21 Feb 2012 | 10:49

    Vernon-"Love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus told His followers. Easier said than done - especially when His definition of "neighbor" includes not only everyone on your block, but everyone on the planet. Whether you like them or not. And even whether you know them or not. How fitting, then, that a troupe of young actors chose to perform the musical "Godspell" - whose story is based on Jesus' command - to do just that. For the second year in a row, local theater students have collaborated for a cause: The fight against cancer. Last year's production of "Children of Eden" raised money to assist the father and brother of a fellow theater student. Both family members were struggling with cancer and the accompanying medical expenses of that battle, and the friends wanted to help. One year later, the two men are doing remarkably well, and this troupe of "neighbors" learned what love can do. So they did it again. This year, co-producers Teresa Wentzell and Drew Leary reassembled their colleagues - former and current Vernon Township High School students - to perform "Godspell" to raise money for two more neighbors in need, Shannon Anderson and Liese Bulman Anderson, a 17-year-old Vernon High senior, was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. Bulman, the mother of a 15-month-old baby, is a 35-year-old Fredon resident diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer one month ago. "Liese Bulman is a woman I know from the bank where I work," said Wentzell, "and Shannon Anderson is someone we all know from school." Leary and Wentzell joined forces years ago as theater students at Vernon High School, playing opposite each other in their "King and I" lead roles. They continued their theater path together, both attending New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, but returned to their hometown each summer to collaborate with friends. They chose John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwarz's "Godspell" because of its message of love and compassion, said Leary. The play centers around the teachings of Christ and most of its dialogue comes directly from the Gospel accounts. In this production, the character of Jesus addressed contemporary searchers, cynics and skeptics within a modern framework and setting of "The Way Cafe" in Greenwich Village. Places and people may change, but the story remains the same. Love is still the rule. Vernon theater has long held the state spotlight, presenting eye- and ear-astounding musical productions each spring, and claiming countless Governor's Awards, trophies and prizes among its actors in state competitions. They're a competitive bunch, to be sure, but have proven to be a caring one, too. The students not only volunteered their acting skills for the three performances held last week at St. Francis de Sales Church, but also raised additional funds to pay for the costs of the show. That ensured that all ticket sale and donation money goes directly to Anderson and Bulman. Wentzell said that the troupe did not intend to launch an annual benefit when they produced their show last year, but rather stumbled upon their continuing mission as the need arose once again. She does hope the trend will continue, though. She and Leary are nearing graduation, however, so the task will likely fall to one of their peers. "I hope someone else will pick it up next year and keep it going," said Wentzell, "but I really don't think we'll be able to do it. Drew graduates next year, and we'll be dealing with the real world by then." Donations for Shannon Anderson and Liese Bulman made out to "St. Francis de Sales / Godspell" can be sent to St. Francis de Sales, PO Box 785, McAfee, NJ 07428. Love your neighbor.