Murals come to life in theatrical piece: Gift to America
The production Gift to America was originally produced and presented by The Iron Clad Agreement, a theatre company co-founded by actor Wil Hutton and executive producer, Julia Royall. All of its Pittsburgh work (1976 – 1981) was created based on various aspects of the history of industry and technology.
In the late 1970s, Dr. David Demarest, Jr., Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of The Iron Clad Agreement’s Board of Directors, took Ms. Royall to St. Nicholas to view the murals. About the visit: “I was astounded and inspired! I believed that we could make a theatre piece in St. Nicholas, but that the murals themselves would be the star performers.”
Following that, they produced a theatre event in 1981 about Maxo Vanka and the murals that was read by actors, standing in various places in the church. The murals did indeed do the acting, thanks to script writer Dave Demarest, director Geoffrey Hitch and lighting assistance from WQED. The original readers were Ann Beigel, Catherine Ames, Doug Mertz, Larry Meyers. Dance and music were provided by the Tamburitzans and the St. Nicholas choir under Ed Sambol. After this initial run, the script was given to St. Nicholas for their use.
The Iron Clad Agreement archive may be found in the Curtis Theatre Collection, a special collection at Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.
In May 2008, the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka staged Gift to America, bringing the murals to life with support from the Pennsylvania Labor Center at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. As a contribution to the celebration of Pittsburgh’s 250th Anniversary, the play attracted four sold-out audiences and helped to raise greater awareness about the paintings and the Society’s efforts to preserve them.
The one-hour play is a conversation about the murals between Vanka and Father Albert Zagar, the priest who commissioned the murals. Two female characters also are a part of the dramatic reading, accompanied by Tamburitzan music. Described by Time magazine as “one of the few distinguished sets of murals in the U.S.,” the murals depict the ravages of war and the sacrifices of immigrant workers in early 20th century industrial America. They honor the congregation’s Croatian heritage and their Christian faith.
Gift to America was most recently performed in 2011, again directed by Geoffrey Hitch. It included performances by Mike Sambol as Father Zagar and David Crawford as Maxo Vanka. Dixie Tymitz and Katherine Carlson provided the female voices.