When Sara Florence Fellini wrote the script for her play “In Vestments,” she hadn’t yet thought about where to stage the story about a church in need of restoration. But when she teamed up with theater director Isaac Byrne to further develop her story, it was clear it would need a specific, less conventional space for its performances, preferably an actual church.
“Isaac said this play lives in a space that is not in a standard space,” said Fellini, who also appears in the show. “There’s a lot of movement and unorthodox scene changes.”
The two learned about West Park Presbyterian Church, on 86th Street near Amsterdam Avenue. The church allowed plays to be produced there in the past, and is in need of repairs as well.
“In Vestments,” which runs through May 30, focuses on deep emotional and psychological issues involving the Roman Catholic Church, and Fellini and Byrne were a bit worried the church would be hesitant to stage the show within its walls, but West Park readily accepted Fellini’s script.
The play focuses on four priests and a sacristan who live and work in the fictional church of Our Lady of Infinite Space, which is in need repair. The title of the show, a reference to the priests’ attire during mass, also nods to the financial investments required to maintain the church, and the devotion to the religion and the people in the organization, which doesn’t always yield positive results.
As the characters seek to find ways to restore their decaying church, they also face painful secrets. And while some scenes are light-hearted, others are dark and haunting, such as a scene in which Fellini’s character, a sacristan named Maeve, prays and reveals that she was sexually abused. Father Yves, who was sexually abused by a cantor when he was an altar boy, observes her confession, which has emotionally traumatic results for the priest, who hasn’t confronted his own past.
“I hope what people get out of that is dealing with that is what helps you the most,” said actor Pierre Marais, who plays a demon named Jakamo. “You watch these people who haven’t dealt with it and how it really overtakes who they are and their lives.”
Still, Adam Belvo, who plays a priest named Nate who once struggled with heroin addiction, assures “In Vestments” is not a wholly dark, intense experience.
“It explores how people get caught in a system of doing things in a particular way,” Belvo said during a rehearsal break at New York Film Academy near Battery Park. “It’s a loving look at the people who make up the church. It’s about personal human issues and certain systems that keep people doing the same things in circles, and each of the characters suffer from their own failures.”
Fellini grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, attended a Catholic high school and worked for the church for a few years, experiences that inspired the play.
“The play was written with a lot of love,” she said. “It’s critical, but it’s human. If you watch it with an open heart and mind, you’ll see that these are real people with flaws, and the Catholic Church is filled with people with flaws.”