Jesus is walking up and down the aisles of St. Mary of the Snow Church. He’s miffed because he can’t find his other shoe. It’s in the confessional, where he took it off earlier.
Richard O’Gorman is in full costume, portraying the son of God in the Church’s annual Passion Play. He’s played Jesus since the first show in 2005, and before he lost his shoe we were doing our interview in the confession room, next to a painting of a bloodied, miserable and pale-skinned Jesus, strung up on the cross. For him, playing Jesus is a spiritual experience – he calls it a “dream state.” He says that he enjoys seeing the crowd enamored with what’s happening in front of them; the procession of Jesus’ last days and his death on the cross.
“When I’m up there, there’s no doubt about it: I’m definitely talking to God,” says O’Gorman. “I’m praying for anyone who’s sick or afflicted or even needs spiritual or mental healing. Anyone I can think of. When the chorus is singing and I’m supposed to be talking, I’m really praying for almost everyone.”
The play relies totally on music to propel the show. The actors speak almost no words during the play, aside from a running narration explaining the gravity of the scenes; the only words spoken are spoken by Jesus as he laments on the cross, saying “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (“Father, Father, why have you forsaken me,” in Aramaic.)
There is real gravity to the show. In the early procession the lighting is so sparse that the only glimmers come from the blue candles under the statues of Mary and baby Jesus in the corner of the church, and there is deep silence. In the show, when Jesus is on the cross, he is wretched and alone. There is no hint he’ll make a divine comeback, no spot of hope. The Passion Play, after all, is the exclamation point of the Lenten season. At a time of reflection, dedicated to honest faith and personal meditation, there is little room for classic Christian Easter-through-Christmas joy. After years of travel, teaching, completely convinced of his message, Jesus has his moment of doubt and pain. Christians know what happens next, but it’s a testament to the skill of the players that the audience can know and still feel the despair.
While O’Gorman acknowledges the importance of reminding Christians of the suffering of Jesus Christ that is the cornerstone of their faith, he also thinks that the St. Mary’s crew should do a sequel. “It would be nice to do a show after Lent about the resurrection, but it’s kind of out of season. Especially in a Catholic church with the 40 days of Lent and all, might be a little out of spirit. But I think I’ll bring it up to John,” says O’Gorman.
He means John Delgado, who has been directing the play since 2005 with most of the same actors. The regular crew alternately play disciples and persecutors, followers and ill-wishers of Jesus throughout the show. He says that, through donations from several local businesses, including the Village Apothecary, Sawyer Motors, and Sue’s Pizzeria, the show has improved technically. “We, for the first time, have purchased over $1500 of real, professional stage lighting and spotlights, which is a huge improvement. We’ve built new sets this year, too, and we’ve got better makeup for Jesus.”
Delgado says that he has seen great improvement in attendance over the past few years. “We started actually selling tickets a year ago, so we could get a headcount of how many would come. As of now, we’ve already sold 150 tickets, which is fantastic – and we can seat 210.” For a small production, Delgado is working with a sizeable cast, including 25 actors, 25 chorus members, a 10-piece orchestra and a stage crew of 10 for a sum total of 70 production members.
“With Lent being early this year, with it being March, people are sick. That flu junk is still floating around. We’ve been missing cast members – even tonight we’ve got three cast members out sick,” says Delgado. “The show’s coming together well otherwise. The cool thing is we get to turn the whole church into a theater, which most Catholic churches wouldn’t be okay with, but our pastor’s great and the whole altar is completely transformed.”
Production assistant Leatrice Wallach says the show’s emotional power is a product of its inherent minimalism and inspired acting. “It really hits home,” she said. “I think people take it very seriously. It’s dark in there, and Richard does such a wonderful job that you really put yourself into the night. I’ve seen plenty of people at the show with tears just pouring. The church is beautiful, and the environment is just perfect for it. The visual aspect is just perfect.”
O’Gorman says that he can see the audience enthralled as he portrays Jesus in his final hours, from Gethsemane to Golgotha. “They all get really into it. I’ve seen people cry during the show,” says O’Gorman. “You try to get the feeling – you try to get to where Jesus would be.”
Lenten Sketches: a Passion cantata drama performed by choir and orchestra will be performed at St. Mary of the Snow Church, 36 Cedar St., on Sunday, March 24 at 7:30 p.m. Reserved seating only. For reservations, call 389-4152. Tickets are $6.