No one in Curwensville, Penn., thought in 1960 that Laura D. Wright was starting a tradition that would involve the entire community. But what she began has endured for 40 years and has helped bring the towns 2,924 residents together every Christmas season since.
Toward the end of Eisenhowers administration, WrightSunday school teacher at Curwensvilles United Methodist Churchcomplained to a friend about the quality of the pageants shed been directing for the last few years. If she felt that way, the friend said, why didnt she write one herself.
Wright fixed up a makeshift writing studio in her basement and did just that. The next year, 1960, the Christmas pageant Search for Peace was launched.
The first performance was a successlargely, Wright figured, because people come to see their children and grandchildren in any type of production. But when they had to add seating in the church where the play is performed, Wright started thinking about changes to make the play better the next year.
Lex Curry Sr. was on the stage crew for the first production in 1960. The next year he took the part of the prophet Nahuma role he played for 35 years before passing it on to his son, Lex Jr. He chuckles, recalling how no one guessed Curwensvilles pageant still would be playing 40 years later. Oh, we knew it was good, but we just thought people came out to see something new.
The play quickly evolved into a production that was not simply for the children of the church, or the church itself, but the entire town. Folks from outside the congregation began offering their help, both on stage and behind the scenes. By the 1970s, the cast numbered more than 60, with scores of others assisting. Three performances were scheduled to handle the crowds, and extra chairs had to be set up so no one was turned away.
The play is the familiar Christmas story acted out silently, using the entire church as its stage. Its told by a narrator, with traditional Christmas carols sprinkled throughout the production. But the theme of mans search for inner peace and the answer that Christ provides is the spiritual core of the play. The final scene finds a diverse group of searchers, including a Pharisee, a Crusader, a KKK member, and an extremist, enter singing to their own tune. A sudden cymbal crash jars the audience, but the discordant singers miraculously find harmony. The hope is that mankind will as well.
In 1973, one of the searchers was Jim Sopic. Now the music and band instructor at Curwensville Elementary School, Sopic was then a high school sophomore; he played a Crusader and sang a solo as one of the shepherds. After college, Sopic returned and took over the reins as the productions vocal director. He believes the play owes its success to the reverent expression of the true meaning of Christmas, as well as the camaraderie of the people involved year after year.
By the 1990s, Curwensville was regarding the play as a town event. Five performances had to be scheduledand there would have been more had the cast and crew not balked at giving up more time during the holidays. Some residents moved away, but many return each Christmas to attend a performance or to assist in its production. Word of the play spread, and now a special section is roped off to hold busloads of people from Harrisburg, Williamsport, Pittsburgh, Erie, Wilkes-Barre, and beyondas well as almost everyone who lives in town.
In 1995, Wright, who was 83, stepped down as director of Search for Peace but retains the title of director emeritus. She plans on attending as many performances as she can in this 41st year of production and still acts as all-around guardian angel.
Another person planning on being in the audience is Chester C. Chidboy, the former director of the Chester C. Chidboy Funeral Home, who holds the distinction of attending at least one performance each year since 1960. The pageant lets people of different faiths come together each year in the true spirit of Christmas, says Chester.
Wright, who never wrote another word for publication, has called the play her 15 minutes of fame. But many in Curwensville feel differently. They see an event that unites and defines a community, that draws back distant family and friends, and that focuses on the real meaning of Christmas.
And thats an extraordinary experience for one woman and a town to share.