Theatre Review: Gift to America – A Celebration of the Murals of Maxo Vanka

First things first: The Maxo Vanka murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania are impressive and emotionally compelling. A crucifixion with WWI bayonet in lieu of the piercing Roman spear. An avenging angel wearing gas mask and holding imbalanced scales. Ordinary working folks – in mourning, adoration and celebration of traditional religious mysteries, but also the mysteries and pathos of their own hard lives. Vanka’s murals, in Depression-era vernacular style, cover every wall. They envelop the church’s architectural space. And, for performances May 4 and 7, they’re also the setting for Gift to America written by David Demarest and directed by Geoffrey Hitch.

If you’re looking for classic theatre – with dramatic tension, crisp dialogue and complex character development – this may not be the event for you. But if you want to explore one of Pittsburgh’s little-known artistic treasures – and to support its restoration — hurry up and get a seat in the pews via

The play and performance interweave the personal story of acclaimed artist Maxo Vanka and Father Zagar (the visionary St. Nicholas priest who brought Vanka to Millvale to paint these “modern” socially-attuned murals) together with bits of Croatian and Pittsburgh history, liturgical devices, and explications of the murals themselves. Performers read from text rather than speak from memory. Illumination shifts from individual candles to spotlights that feature sections of Vanka’s impressive work.

The strongest voice in the performance is David Crawford as Maxo Vanka. The church’s own cantor, Mike Sambol as Father Zagar, with Dixie Tymitz and Katherine Carlson as two “Female Voices” round out the cast.

Demarest’s play sets a historical context, introduces the struggle to re-build St. Nicholas after a devastating fire, and follows Father Zagar and Maxo Vanka through the creation of the murals. An accomplished artist with a European pedigree but working-class heart, Vanka painted half of the church space in an astonishing eight-week period during 1937. A strong Croatian “Mary” dominates the front of the sanctuary. The ceiling includes images of the Evangelists which Vanka, himself, considered too formal and traditional. Other wall sections include the moving “America Raises Her Sons for War” and “America Raises Her Sons for Industry, ” based respectively on the true stories of a Croatian soldier in WWI (Vanka had served with the Red Cross in the Belgian war zone) and a mining accident in West Virginia. And that’s only a sampling.

Though compassionate as ever, when Vanka returned to finish the murals in 1941, Hitler had taken over Croatia, and Maxo was an even angrier man. In another break-neck stint of 12-hour days, often painting in physical pain, he created not only images of war, but also striking imaginative pairings. On one side of the church entrance, an African-American waiter serves dinner to a top-hatted financier who raises a skeletal hand that holds an eerie flame. Directly facing that scene, a working-class family shares a communion-like meal.

Though the Depression-era style is “simple” rather than “subtle,” many of the faces and details in these murals are compelling. A later addition by a different artist — showing Maxo holding his daughter on his knee – reveals, by contrast, the caliber of Vanka’s artistic accomplishment. When the next phase of restoration is funded and complete — removing damaging, moisture-retaining soot from additional sections of the work — that accomplishment will be even more vividly on display.

With his Millvale project finished, Maxo Vanka wrote: “These murals are my gift to America. May this St. Nicholas Croation Catholic Church keep alive for future generations the memory of their immigrant ancestors, their faith and their courage.” That is the goal of the restoration campaign and of these benefit performances.

Medieval church art was intended as “living scripture,” interpreting Biblical stories for illiterate audiences. Gift to America helps a modern audience – new to this work and perhaps unfamiliar with its historic context – to “read” these impressive murals. Vanka’s art, rather than the theatrical performance, rightly takes center stage.

For more information and to see some details from the murals, visit

Filed under: Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts