Sarah Ruhl’s excellent Passion Play, presented by Epic Theatre Ensemble at the Irondale Center, is nothing if not ambitious. Set in three different eras and locales, Mark Wing-Davey’s beautifully realized production uses stagings of passion plays — dramatic presentations of the story of Jesus Christ’s trial, suffering, death, and resurrection — to explore not only issues of spirituality, but also politics and more physical passions, as well.
The first act is set in 1575 England, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who banned the performance of religious plays as part of her efforts to rid England of traces of Catholicism. The action centers around the players of a passion play in a small village, who have been performing their roles for years. For some of them, the act of playing their Biblical counterparts has affected the way they live their lives. John (Hale Appleman), who portrays Jesus, is almost saintly, while Mary (Kate Turnbull), who portrays the Virgin Mary, tries to pass off an unexpected pregnancy as an immaculate conception.
In the second act, set in Oberammergau, Bavaria in 1934, the role of Jesus is played by neophyte Eric (Appleman again), who is a much more conflicted character. His clandestine love affair with a foot soldier in the German army (Dominic Fumusa) is just one of the stories that play out as World War II encroaches upon the lives of the townspeople. The third act centers around a passion play in 20th-century South Dakota, and tells the tale of two brothers (Appleman and Fumusa), one of whom becomes a soap opera star and the other an addled Vietnam vet.
Each of the three parts could conceivably stand on its own, but viewed as a whole adds up to much more than the sum of its parts. The shifting dynamics between the roles played by Appleman and Fumusa provides a through-line for the piece, as their characters always take on the parts of Jesus and Pontius Pilate, respectively. Both actors rise to the challenge of playing multiple variations on a theme, with Appleman particularly convincing in Act 2 and Fumusa downright heartwrenching in Act 3.
T. Ryder Smith presents three scene-stealing turns as Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler, and Ronald Reagan — all of whom figure into the plot in strangely delightful ways. Polly Noonan is somewhat annoying in the first act as the Village Idiot, but is harrowingly effective in Act 2 as Violet, a Jewish orphan shunned by the other villagers. Turnbull and Nicole Wiesner, as the actresses usually playing the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, are also quite good. Rounding out the cast in multiple but related parts are Brendan Averett, Daniel Pearce, Alex Podulke, Keith Reddin, and Godfrey L. Simmons Jr.
Irondale’s theatrical playing area is a large room on the second floor of Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, which makes for an ideal site-specific staging of Ruhl’s work. Set designers Allen Moyer and Warren Karp work with the existing architecture of the space, and large rolling storage units sometimes double as doors from which characters enter or exit. The overall effect is a non-illusionist, almost presentational aesthetic, reinforced by Gabriel Berry and Antonia Ford-Roberts’ costume pieces, which are mostly contemporary with some very specific exceptions, such as the outfits Smith wears as the three leaders he portrays.
The production clearly demonstrates the political contexts in which passion plays were performed — including a move towards skepticism in the third act, as many of the South Dakota actors are now Equity and don’t even pretend to believe in the story they’re depicting. And yet, remarkably, Ruhl’s play doesn’t come across as anti-religious. On the contrary, a yearning for spirituality permeates the proceedings, with surreal imagery (often involving fish) dynamically used to create a sense of wonder that signals that there’s something beyond the human dramas that we’ve seen played out before us.