They say that during the worst of the 1633 plague the residents of Oberammergau, Germany, pledged to perform a play recounting the last days of Jesus every ten years if God would spare them. So beginning the next year, after the illnesses had subsided, they began presenting their epic passion play. And they still continue it. Nowadays performances last five hours, with as many as a thousand performers on stage at once. About half the 5,000 villagers take part.
In 1980, Horace Hylan attended the Oberammergau passion play (see video below) and it knocked his socks off. When he returned to his home church of First Parish Congregational Church in Wakefield, Massachusetts, “He said we should do something like that,” Pamela Weisenbach Abkarian says.
Hylan organized the Wakefield church’s community productions each year for about a decade before handing over the writing and directing to Abkarian. Some years the cast has featured as many as 40 performers and sets that filled the front of the church. This year’s version, which will be performed at the church for free on Thursday and Friday night, is more spare, featuring a cast of 16 adults and children on the candlelit altar.
Abkarian’s script, which is accompanied with live piano by Don Hodgkins, is set on the evening of Holy Saturday, after Jesus’s crucifixion on Good Friday, and before his resurrection the next day, Easter Sunday. It is about being in this in between moment, this moment filled with doubts, after Jesus’s death, but before his miraculous return. His grief-stricken mother Mary (performed by Jo Lynn Foster, pictured above) says, “The God I know wouldn’t let it end like this.”
The future of First Parish’s passion play itself is in doubt because Abkarian is moving to Rhode Island. “Unless somebody wants to take it over, this will be the last year,” she says. “They might do something else. Somebody else might pick up the torch and start a new tradition.”
First Parish Congregational Church in Wakefield presents its annual “Passion for the Christ” Easter pageant at 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, April 5 and 6, 2012, at 1 Church St., Wakefield, Massachusetts. Admission is free.
Photos of last night’s dress rehearsal by The New England Journal of Aesthetic Research.
“I’ve questioned guilty men before,” says Pilate (Andy Black). “And even with his passive defenses, I knew he wasn’t guilty.” (Above, from left, Dom Mercurio plays Matthew and Jim Fosnock plays Andrew.)