Politics and religion are incendiary subjects onstage, especially during the home stretch of a presidential election. But Sarah Ruhl’s much-developed 3½-hour intimate epic, “Passion Play,” delicately wafts over the didactic with her own special lyrical blend of poetry, humor and grace. Matched with helmer Mark Wing-Davey’s flair and nuance, this is an often wondrous work. It’s a different kind of morality play that should appeal to both sides of the aisles — and pews — even as audiences plumb the imagery, metaphors and language for deeper meaning.
There’s a lot to take in, including a parade of dead fish, an ascending Jesus or two and the theatrical triptych of Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and Ronald Reagan.
Ruhl does not simply tsk-tsk that dangerous cocktail of politics and religion, with its war chaser. Rather she uses the iconography and theatrics of both the secular and spiritual to examine how it effects the hoi polloi in determining the roles they play in their daily lives.
Though this production follows Ruhl’s relatively recent “The Clean House,” “Eurydice” and “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” the three-part play by the 34-year-old scribe had its beginnings 13 years ago when she was a student at Brown U. under Paula Vogel’s tutelage.
The play also had earlier full productions, first at D.C.’s Arena Stage in 2005 helmed by Molly Smith, and last year at Chicago’s Goodman. Wing-Davey staged that revised work and directs another version here using several of the same thesps and designers.
Over the course of the play, Ruhl follows a community of players in three different eras putting together a local version of their annual Passion, ritual theater which depicts the life and (especially) the death of Jesus Christ. Each period’s players see something different in the work in the context of their times, especially how good and evil are defined for political, religious and social purposes and how those forces shape their own lives.
The first part takes place in Northern England in 1575, when Queen Elizabeth has forbidden religious plays, breaking with the Vatican in her efforts to be her country’s prime power. Act two is set in 1934 in Oberammergau, Bavaria, where Hitler is emerging as the uberpower and foreshadowing militaristic rumblings are heard mingling with ominous sounds of train wheels. Third part shifts to Vietnam-era South Dakota, ending with a leap to 1984 and the Reagan administration. Kathleen Chalfant plays all three of those iconic roles.
In each section, Ruhl zeroes in how the roles of Jesus, Mary and Pontius Pilot mask, mirror and impact the local actors who play them. But the transformative nature of art is a complex thing and the playwright nicely avoids the sentimental magic-of-the-theater cliches. Instead she confronts the difficult and darker price of role-playing as her characters leap from era to era. Some find the method (or the Method) for their lives; others find madness.
In the first act, the Passion’s Pontius Pilate (Felix Solis) is a lonely fish-gutter who is jealous when his handsome cousin John (Joaquin Torres) inherits the role of Jesus from his father. But the part has made the hamlet’s hunk into a chaste fellow, while his cousin scores with the less-than-virginal Mary (Susan Pourfar) leading to tragic consequences.
In the second act, the Jesus player is a sensitive soul conflicted by his own emotions amid expectations of family, community and nation. Pilate is his best friend, a soldier who compartmentalizes his don’t-ask-don’t-tell feelings.
In the final act, Pilate is a returning war vet in Spearfish, S.D., who can’t wash away his guilt. His brother plays Jesus, a role that brings him ambition, ego and a ruinous relationship.
Davey’s fast-moving production is enhanced by a team of elegant design contributions: Allen Moyer’s clean, wood block-like set; Ilona Somogyi’s detailed through-the-ages costumes; Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting that echoes the scribe’s shifts of brightness and drama; and Ruppert Bohle’s dreamy projections, which drift lightly on the production and the mind.
The ensemble of actors, especially those playing Jesus, Pilate and Mary, excel in their compare-and-contrast identities. Polly Noonan is also striking as the Village Idiot who morphs into the outcast Jew and later a bastard child. Chalfant is coolly commanding as Queen Elizabeth, Hitler and, most mesmerizingly, a blathering-yet-calculated Reagan.
The play and production still have their flaws. Secondary characters lack fullness or follow-through and at times the multitude of themes trip over themselves. The play’s redemptive end, too, does not have the emotional wallop it clearly strives for, as it follows a character who literally gets carried up in his role. But if “Passion Play” isn’t quite miraculous, it’s still thought-provoking, haunting and at times, even glorious.