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Monday, November 12, 2007

A Pebble In My Shoe

Jack Spong with St. Paul's members Joan Fry (far left) and Ann Bennett (far right) and Christ Church, Ridgewood member Marge Christie (center).

Play at Bickford
depicts life of controversial bishop
'Pebble in My Shoe'
offers look at Episcopal cleric,
a resident of Morris Plains

Monday, November 12, 2007

MORRIS TWP. -- John Shelby Spong was a polarizing figure who alienated many who steadfastly held to traditional values during the 24 years that he served as bishop of the Newark Diocese of the Episcopal Church.

But Spong, a Morris Plains resident who was the first Episcopal bishop to ordain a gay priest in 1989, also was loved by those who admired his ability to embrace tolerance and diversity in a church that was divided over those issues.

That dichotomy played out to a packed crowd at the Bickford Theatre on Sunday afternoon as "A Pebble In My Shoe: The Life and Times of John Shelby Spong," a theatrical version of Spong's autobiography, made its Morris Township debut.

"Pebble," which was conceived by a Los Angeles-based company, is a chronological adaptation of Spong's autobiography, "Here I Stand: My Struggle for a Christianity of Integrity, Love & Equality."

The first act follows Spong's life from his upbringing in the racist and homophobic South to his early years as a pastor in Virginia before he came to New Jersey in the late 1970s.

The second half of the two-hour play is devoted to the growing divisiveness of the church over Spong's practices and beliefs, which include the ordination of women and gays into the priesthood.

Three actors played Spong and various figures who had direct and indirect influences on him throughout his life. "Pebble" serves as both a professional and personal manifest of Spong, with scenes focusing on the death of his first wife, Joan, from cancer in 1988.

Spong, 76, who retired in 2001, said Sunday's showing was the sixth time he's seen the play, but it doesn't get any easier watching his life unfold on stage.

"It's not easy to watch, particularly scenes of the death of my first wife," admitted Spong, who attended the play with his wife, Christine. "I like to honor it, but I'd like not to relive it."

Nevertheless, Spong believes in spreading the "powerful" message of "Pebble."

"I'm really pleased that it's out and about," he said. "I think they've got three very talented actors and a wonderful playwright."

The Rev. Mark Beckwith, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, said the story not only captures dimensions of Spong's life, but our lives as well.

"To see this window into Jack's life is really a window into our own lives," said Beckwith. "So many of us who are here today are here because of Jack Spong."

Director Colin Cox and the cast, comprised of Stephan Wolfert as Spong and Mike Peebler and Dawn Stern playing multiple roles, took questions and answers from the audience following the 3 p.m. show.

As Spong, Wolfert accomplished the demanding task of memorizing 75 pages of dialogue to portray the bishop throughout his life. But the former military man said the thought that terrified him was performing for Spong.

"I'm a combat veteran and I've never been more afraid," Wolfert said, drawing guffaws from the audience.

Cox, a British native who learned of Spong through his many best-selling books, said he was eager to tell his story through Will & Company, a non-profit he founded in Los Angeles.

"What he stands for is what our company stands for, which is diversity and acceptance," Cox said. "To me, he parallels the timeline of so much in the United States in regards to human rights."

The company hopes to bring "Pebble" to college campuses across the country to tell Spong's story of courage, said Peebler, who together with Stern, portrayed 32 characters and had 44 costume changes.

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