As Jesus said, "Show business is not all sunglasses and autographs."
This particular Jesus is not to be confused with the Son of God, was wearing navy blue slacks and a white shirt with epaulets, a gold chain with gold charms on it around his neck and a diamond ring. His name is Marc Baxley, and he was the starring role in a Passion play that tours the country during the year and settles for the summer in an aging antebellum mansion in Strasburg, Va., a small town near Front Royal.
"To play Jesus was always my goal," Baxley said recently. "How many of us ever realize our goals?"
This particular Passion play is a somewhat down-scale, Americanized version of the one that plays every 10 years in Obermmergau, West Germany. It plays in civic auditoriums in towns like Macon, Ga., and Yakima, Wa., and runs 2 hours and 15 minutes instead of six hours. The size of the cast depends on the number of senior citizens and 4-H Clubbers who show up to be extras, compared to the case of 1,700 villagers who put on the German version, and the actors must compete not only with weather but such nonbiblical distractions as the roar of passing motorcycles and bingo numbers called out from a nearby fairground.
One recent Wednesday the sky looked threatening well before the 8:30 p.m. starting time. In fact, it rained on the annual Strasburg Firemen's parade down Main Street earlier in the evening.
But over at Passion play headquarters on Route 11, the impending rain was ignored.An audience of about 100, mostly older ladies with gray hair, sat expectantly on the green webbed lawn chairs, that are set up on the hillside that slopes away from the back of the mansion. The stage is attached to the rear wall, and a combination and real and painted stonework makes up the main part of the set.
The scent of powder and cologne filled the summer air. When the rain started to sprinkle, the ladies took plastic rain hats out of their purses and tied them on, and a man passed out plastic garbage bags so that they could cover their laps or shoulders, making them look like 20th-century shepherds waiting to watch over their flocks by night.
Even as the rain increased to a steady, if gentle, downpour, they stayed. They didn't mind that some of the characters wore rubber flip-flops instead of sandals, or that some of the beards and wigs looked like a good gale might take them off. Some of the accents were pure Virginian -- but who's to say apostles don't have Southern accents?
The rain continued; some people left. But most stayed on, through "On a Hillside in Galilee Jesus Heals the Sick," through "The Sermon on the Mount," and through "The Priests Deliberate How to Capture Jesus." When Jesus/Baxley came on dragging the cross, which weighs 185 pounds, they gasped.
After about two hours a tiny high-pitched voice announced, "There will now be a five-minute intermission," and when the lights went back on, there was Jesus nailed to the cross. There were "oohs" from the audience. During the "takedown" as the actors call it, the crowd was intensely silent. Then the final tableaus: Jesus in the Tomb, the Angel in the Tomb and finally Jesus, now in a white satin robe, invisibly attached to the cross, Risen.
"Well," said one grandmother as the curtain closed. "That gave me goosebumps."
This is not the big time. This is not the show business of glitter and stars on the dressing-room door, gib bucks and orchestras, send in the clowns and bring on the elephants. Or sunglasses and autographs.
These are, rather, the footsoldiers of theater, carrying on the tradition of carrying on. Sometimes there are but four people in the audience; sometimes more than 200. The pay isn't very good, the mansion needs painting, and even Jesus helps clean up after the show.
In many ways, this Passion play is not so much a theatrical experience as a fusion of religion and theater. People come to see the life of Christ portrayed in living flesh, not to see great theater, and to them the performance makes up in significance what it may lack in polish. Many who come to see it have never been to a play before; sometimes they talk to each other in a normal tone of voice during the performance, as though they haven't realized yet that this isn't television.
"It is the life of Christ as depicted in the Bible," said Becky Crabill, who has one line in the play and works as a grill cook three nights a week at a local truck stop. "From some people it is the only way they can visualize what Christ was like."
Three of Crabill's children are also in the play: Margo, 15, is a harem girl in Herod's court, Carl, 12, is a scribe, and Jimmy, 9, is the water boy in the Last Supper's scene. They all play other parts, too.
"Usually I play an apostle, too, because we don't have enough men. I'm in the kitchen main scene, too -- I'm the one that reacts to her . . . We used to have enough costumes to have Mary girls that followed Mary around, and Magdalene girls that followed Mary Magdalene . . . for some reason we don't have as many people to be extras this year . . ."
They don't get paid. "I'm just a ham, I guess. Last year we got paid in passes but this year we're not."
One year Carl wore his baseball cap onstage by mistake, and Jimmy wore his glasses. Margo met her boyfriend in the show last year.
Some of the older teen-agers purposely gun their car motors when they drive past the theater, she said, and on the Fourth of July the sky was filled with skyrockets and firecrackers throughout the show. And sometimes it rains.
"Last year it started to rain and I prayed it would stop at 8:30, and it did!" said Kathy Morris, 76. She is one of the senior citizens who comes to the show two or three times a week to be an extra.
"Opening night they asked me to be a harem girl," she said squealing with laughter. "I didn't know what I was supposed to do, but it wasn't hard. We just lie around and listen to Herod's jokes."
Morris is in the show "every chance I can get . . . I just get so lonely sitting up there in that apartment, nobody comes to visit." Her friend Margie Bowman, 71, is also an occasional extra. "One night I was in the crowd scene that hollers 'crucify him, crucify him,'" she said, "But the next time they picked a group that said 'free him, free him'; that suited me better."
Morris said she only has one problem -- when she sits on the ground during the scenes, she has to be helped up.
They both enjoy hanging around the professional actors. "That's Marc's a kisser, I tell you that," Morris said.
Baxley said he has wanted to play Jesus for 20 years, ever since he was hired by the Balfours in Beaumont, Tex., to play John the Beloved. He spent a year on tour, playing Herod and Pontius Pilate in 38 states.
"The money wasn't important," he said. "It was 'Hey, I'm in Show Business.'"
After that Baxley, who will be 42 in September, tried New York and then Hollywood. He wound up working at Paramount Studios, first in the mail room and then in the casting department and acting in amateur theater on the side.
Then he decided it was time for change. He moved to Hawaii and worked for a year stringing leis for $10 a day.But when "Hawaii Five-O" came to town in 1969, he auditioned and spent the next nine years playing bit parts for seven months of the year and enjoying the beach the rest of the time.
Then he moved back to Hollywood, and got small parts in television movies like "Death Moon" and "Ike." He did that until two years ago, when Ann Balfour called and ask if he'd like to rejoin the Passion play.
"She said, 'You can have your choice between Judas or Jesus'," he said. "I said, 'Where are you, I'm on my way.'" He grew his beard and long hair for the part.
"This is the only part I've ever wanted to do. I feel i've come home. I will do it as long as they'll have me . . . When I go onstage, I'm not Marc Baxley. I'm not saying I become Jesus -- I want to make that perfectly clear -- but I feel that I am sincere in the portrayal of Jesus the man. Hey, Jesus was someone special, but he was a mortal man, not a divinity. It give me pleasure after the show to see children see someone they've just heard about become real to them."
Baxley, who is single, does not mind the rigors of the road, the continual stream of new hotels and new faces, nor distractions like traffic or rain during the performance.
"Working in the rain, it's as though you were on the hill in Jerusalem somewhere," he said. "They didn't have unmbrellas in those days . . . rain is God's way of making things beautiful. It wont't hurt us to go out in it once in a while."
He has learned to modulate his voice for the traffic. "You can hear an 18-wheeler coming so you lear to get louder as it passes by."
He enjoys being a gypsy. "Actors get knocked right and left. But I live life, if I didn't I would stagnate, I wouldn't be interesting to myself . . . I used to be the most negative person you'd ever want to meet, I mean Mr. 'N' himself. I have been down, really in the pits. But I got out, thanks to God and my friends, and now when I get down I just say hey, get out of it, and it doesn't last long."
When Val and Ann Balfour bought the place 10 years ago with the idea of putting on their play in what amounts to the back yard, they turned the old slave kitchen into a museum to display posters and treasures they had acquired from being a four-generation traveling theater family. That was before Balfour, who used to play Jesus, died six years ago.
This year some of the actors couldn't find places to live, so they're staying in the house, and the museum has been turned to other uses. But the posters are still up, tacked to the old stone walls, advertising shows from another era when Balfour's mother had her Gladys Klark Stock Co.
"Tess of the Storm Country," reads one, "A Powerful Play of Primitive Passion."
"Miss Gladys Klark . . . In the Army Now . . . The bang 'em, Slam 'em, Doughboys Flirting with Death Over There . . . Big as the Heart of Humanity . . . Tearing the mask from the King of Spies . . . Seats now on sale."
The Balfours started doing their shortened version of the passion play 27 years ago.
Mrs. Balfour met her husband in his mother's stock company in 1928 and ran off with him a year later. They had to go to Canada to get married because they were both under age. She kept the show going after her husband died, and still plays the part of Mary Magdalene.
"I didn't know what else to do," she said.
Ann Kelley Balfour's mother was an actress until she married Ann's father, who was a fire chief in Albany, N.Y. She grew up having parts in a local stock company production of "Mrs. Wigg's Cabbage Patch," progressively playing all the children as she got older. A stock company, she explained, was a theater that stayed in one town and did a new play every week. "Now they call them resident theaters or repertory companies," she said.
After high school she tured with a production of the musical "The Girlfriend" and later joined Gladys Klark's company as in ingenue. Klark's parents started the family theater tradition in Missouri, where they began with a musical act -- including glasses filled with water -- that they toured with. They started doing plays and took them to South America and back.
Klark would buy Broadway productions when they closed -- copyright, costumes, sets and all -- and tour them to Bermuda and all the other English speaking islands in that area. Then they'd head up to New England and Canada. She ended her career with her son's Passion play, playing the Widow of Nain in a special interlude that took the place of an intermission. Balfour would never allow another actress to play the part after she died.
Mrs. Balfour sold the house in Richmond she and her husband owned for 17 years, where they would go in the two or three months a year the Passion play was not on the road. Her daughter, a widow who lived in the house while they were not there, was sent to boarding school while they traveled. She did not want to become a fourth-generation actress in the Balfour family, but her daugher Susan has played Mary Magdelen and Mrs. Balfour hopes that her daughter or her brother David, a college student, will be interested in taking over the production some day.
Val Balfour, who adapted the play from the Oberammegau version, died in a hospital in Richmond.The show was on that night, Mrs. Balfour recalled and "it was a packed house."
"He died at exactly 11 o'clock at night," she said. "You know actors always say that's curtain time, when the curtain comes down."
Mrs. Balfour takes pains to point out that their Passion plays is the only touring version that she knows of; there is a Passion play in the Black Hills of South Dakota that plays during the summer and moves to Florida in the winter, but it doesn't tour. The Balfour play is billed as the "American" version of the German play, and an effort was made to edit out anything that might be interpreted as antiSemetic.
"My husband added a line or two to the character of Nicodemus to bring out some of the political aspects and to point out that all Jewish people were not against Jesus," she said. "It was a political thing at that time, like Mr. Carter and Mr. Reagan."
Mrs. Balfour hopes to move the play to another site sometime in the future to get away from the noise and weather problems. The used to move to auditorium in Front Royal when it rained, but they don't do that anymore. Since they may move, she said, she has allowed the plant to get a little run down. But she will not give it up.
"It's really become a way of life," she said.