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Intersection of art and religion in a complex passion play

Sophia Varnai, Jay Griffith, and Sophie Falvey in Lumina’s “Passion Play.” COURTESY PHOTOSophia Varnai, Jay Griffith, and Sophie Falvey in Lumina Studio Theatre’s “Passion Play.” COURTESY PHOTO  David Minton grew up a fervent Southern Baptist.

“I’ve gone through a lot of changes since then,” admitted the artistic director of Lumina Studio Theatre. “But I have a great respect for people of faith.”

Religious belief is a strong component of “Passion Play,” the theater company’s next offering.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl dramatizes a community of players rehearing their annual staging of the Easter Passion in three different periods: 1575 England, just before Queen Elizabeth outlaws the ritual; 1934 Oberammergua, Bavaria, when Hitler is rising to power and using the ritual toward his own ends; and the Vietnam era through Reagan’s presidency in Spearfish, South Dakota.

We never get to see the actual Passion Play.

“It’s a piece of theater about theater,” said Minton, who is directing. “Ruhl is intrigued by the intersection of faith and art – with politics not far in the background.”

Despite the subject matter, Ruhl considers her works a dramatic comedy, Minton added.

“While we were having discussions within the ensemble about what show we wanted to do next, the one thing that I think we all agreed was that we wanted to perform something meaningful,” said cast member Raina Greifer. “I think ‘Passion Play’ more than meets that request. There’s a moment that happens when watching a truly beautiful piece of theater, where the actors connect with the audience and everything kind of goes still. Ruhl’s writing allows for those moments ... “

Greifer also loves the “elements of surrealism.”

“The balance of casual dialogue and poetry is amazing,” Greifer said, “but I also think what is so moving is the desperate ‘wanting’ throughout the play.”

Greifer plays Mary Magdalene and Mary 2; the latter is someone different in each of the acts.

Greifer stressed that more than anything, Ruhl is addressing innocence. “What appeals to us so much about these religious figures is this sense of cleanliness; they are pure. As human beings, we aren’t. We aren’t innocent like the characters we pretend to be, and that’s okay, but are we hypocrites to be honoring those figures?”  

Jay Griffith, another cast member, “fell in love with the play” after the first table reading.

“I think it has so many layers, and so much to say about who we are,” he said. “And who in theater doesn’t love self-referential material? Ruhl is able to raise questions about duty and love and our desire to do the right thing in a play that also has a fast-paced plot and very naturalistic human interaction.”
At the same time, he said, the very dynamism of the script presents one of its greatest challenges.

“Not only does each of us have to play three (or more) different characters in a similar vein; we also have to work with distinct styles of movement and writing, sometimes within acts,” Griffith said. “But I’m very grateful for the way I was cast: the characters of John/Eric/Jay are ones I feel an intense personal connection to, which has really motivated me to delve deeper into the text and my own work.”

If it sounds complex, Griffith added another observation about what he perceives the playwright’s intentions to be.

“I think if Sarah Ruhl herself knew exactly what she was trying to say, she wouldn’t have written this play,” he said. “‘Passion Play,’ like all good art, asks questions rather than answers them. Who do we strive to be? Who are we ultimately trying to help, and who is it who will judge us for these actions?”

Next on Lumina’s schedule is Shakespeare’s “Richard II,” in late April through early May.

“Passion Play” will run April 13 through April 15 at Silver Spring Black Box Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. For information, visit: www.luminastudio.org. For tickets, go to: www.brownpapertickets.com

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