First, there’s the sheer ambition of the thing. Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play,” which she began over a decade ago as a playwriting student and has re-written since its initial premiere at Arena Stage in 2005, explores three communities in three different eras offering a production of the story of Christ, placing the story, and people’s relationship to it, amidst defined social contexts. Subtitled “a cycle in 3 parts,” the work takes on grand themes, particularly the nexus of religion, art and politics. In other words, it takes on the western world.
Secondly, there’s the glorious dramatic poetry of the play. Just to give a single example, there are the human-sized dead fish, a parade of them in the first sequence, that then reappear in the final act. And let’s not fail to treasure a most redemptive ending, fully and beautifully staged by director Mark Wing-Davey in this lush production at Chicago’s Goodman Theater, in which a troubled Vietnam veteran (Brian Sgambati) who used to play Pontius Pilate ascends to the heavens in a giant ship.
Since the arrival last season in New York of “The Clean House” after a multitude of regional productions, Ruhl is now fully recognized as one of the most exciting young voices in American playwriting. While it’s simply too big, and maybe even too thematically unwieldy, to find the same wide degree of exposure, “Passion Play” certainly won’t diminish her reputation.
The theatrical conceit has actors associated to the same roles in each of the pieces — Joaquin Torres, for example, plays the characters who have been cast as Jesus, while Nicole Wiesner takes on those who portray Mary Magdalene. It’s an interesting acting challenge that the ensemble lives up to, managing to find both the connections and the disparities that make each piece unique but connected.
Work begins in Elizabethan England with the story of a passionate actress playing Mary the Virgin (Kristen Bush) who, enamored of the fisherman who plays Christ (Torres), instead becomes impregnated by the fish gutter who plays Pontius Pilate (Sgambati), to tragic consequence. This first piece is the one that could most rewardingly be produced on its own — it feels lovely and complete.
Then there’s 1934 Oberammergau, Germany, where the young, sensitive man taking on the role of Jesus from his ailing father ends up — what else? — a Nazi. “You’ve got a new costume,” the Village Idiot (a constantly affecting Polly Noonan) says to him at the end of the act, seeing him in uniform rather than a flowing white robe. “It’s ugly.”
And finally, there’s the Passion Play as produced in Spearfish, South Dakota, first during the Vietnam War and then in the 1980s. The oddly poetic young husband, an unlikely Pilate, goes off to war, returns to discover a personal betrayal, and then struggles for decades to wipe away his demons.
Each act also portrays the leader of the day, with Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan making appearances, all played with a nimble mix of style and conviction by T. Ryder Smith.
It’s a lot to ponder, a provocative and enjoyable 3½ hours of rich human yearnings and highly literate thematic layering. Ruhl observes the deeply convoluted interaction between the artifice of acting and that of politics — Elizabeth bans the Passion because people shouldn’t pretend to play Christ, and yet she herself takes pride in her own artificiality; Reagan, himself an actor, refers to leadership as a type of pretense; Hitler, well, he just says it all upon watching the blatant anti-Semitism of the Oberammergau passion: “How I love the theater.”
In addition to the big political questions, Ruhl also asks big existential ones, like how do the roles we play affect who we are?
Wing-Davey and his team of talented designers (including eye-popping projections from Ruppert Bohle) infuse all with flourishes that seem at once simple, whimsical and profound, which nicely sums up a few core qualities that make Ruhl so special.
Does it all work? Not completely. The third part, which has been the focus of her changes, doesn’t quite let us into its main character’s soul deeply enough to generate the emotional connection it should, coming off heady when it should be heartbreaking. But the beauty and thoughtfulness in “Passion Play” overwhelm all quibbles.