DEER PARK — Making the jump from theater student to Lutheran minister wasn't that big a leap for the Rev. Keith Hardy.
The pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church here has found that every week he can combine his love of the stage with his desire to serve God.
"There aren't that many professions where once a week you get to write yourself a 20-minute monologue," Hardy joked, quickly adding that it's not the only reason he went into the ministry.
"I just couldn't get away from it. From the time I was 6, I tried to think of something else to do -- acting, teaching, technical writing."
Hardy said he could have followed the family tradition of theater work. Hisfather, grandfather and grandmother all acted in professional and semi-professional productions.
But the 39-year-old pastor said he finally realized the clergy was how God wanted him to use his talents.
"That may sound corny, but that's the way I feel. I would not havethis talent if God did not intend for me to use it in this way."
Now -- in addition to his weekly sermons -- Hardy performs in skits during Lutheran synod conventions and the Westminster community Good Friday service.
"Like the old movie title says, the Gospel is the greatest story ever told," he said. "It deserves to be told with excitement and drama. I don't see the theater as the presentation of that which is imaginary, but the revelation of that which is most profoundly true.
"When it's done well, it's entertaining, as any good story is."
Since moving back to the area after serving in Puerto Rico for four years, the 1975 graduate of Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania has performed three times on the stage of his alma mater for the Gettysburg Theatre Festival.
This year, he appears as Norman Bulansky in "The Boys Next Door" tomorrow, Friday and Saturday.
Written by Tom Griffin, the play follows four mentally retarded men -- ArnoldWiggins (played by George Muschamp), Lucien P. Smith (John Fiedor), Barry Klemper (Ian P. Murphy) and Bulansky -- who live in a home designed to help them function on their own in society.
As they work, socialize together and emotionally support each other, the audience is gently led through humor to see the challenges that face the handicapped.
For example, Norman Bulansky's co-workers at the doughnut shop think they are being nice to him by giving him all the broken doughnuts at the end of each day. However, this perceived kindness has resulted in Norman gaining 17 pounds since he started the job a few months ago.
The audience also sees how one of Arnold's co-workers takes advantage of his handicap by forcing him to shine his shoes everyday.
"The play does an excellent job in showing that these men are human beings first and foremost," Hardy said. "Too often those withmental handicaps are too quickly stereotyped and the human being is not seen."
Emile O. Schmidt, the play's director, said Hardy's work with handicapped people while studying at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia helps him bring the role of Norman to life.
"After he was cast in the role, it was fascinating that he had worked with men tally handicapped in his career," Schmidt said. "He makes a real contribution above the acting. He's just right for the part."
Hardy's fellow actors said that his commitment to the project also helps them form their characters.
"He really plumbs the depth of a character," Murphy said. "He gets to the bottom of Norman, and that helps us get to the bottom of our characters."
Murphy said thatHardy's interpretation of his keys as a crucifix -- a prop that Norman carries everywhere and is reluctant to give up -- helped him find inner meanings for different props he used.
"There are actors who are creative and intuitive, and others who do careful work," said Muschamp, who has worked with Hardy on various productions during the past few years. "Keith is both."
Muschamp also said that Hardy is supportive of the other actors, helping them all work well together. The closeness of the cast is necessary to give the play an air of spontaneity since one line does not logically follow another, he said.
"We have to mutually trust each other," Muschamp said. "We have to work as an ensemble effort, like the Flying Wallendas. You have to graba line as it flies by.
"Keith is so giving and supportive, it's wonderful."
What Hardy's fellow actors said they are most impressedwith is how he won't force his career into his work with the troupe.
"He doesn't preach to us," said Joanna Heath, who plays Norman's girlfriend, Sheila. "We talk about it, but he's sensitive to the factthat not everyone has the same feelings and beliefs he does."
In fact, Muschamp said he sometimes forgets Hardy is a pastor.
"Thereare times when I might pull a prank on him or slap him on the back alittle too hard and I think afterward that it would have been something I would have been embarrassed to do if he had his collar on," Muschamp said. "But he's not stuffy about it at all. He's just one of the boys."
Tickets, available at the door, are $10 for adults and $5for children and students. Curtain is at 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, Friday and Saturday. A 2 p.m. matinee also will be presented on Saturday.
For information, call (717)-337-6060.