The little girl cried out in the dark: "Don't let Jesus die!"

Down below, on a vast outdoor stage, Roman soldiers in bright gold armor flogged Jesus Christ, laughing at the sport. A dusty crowd cheered with each crack of the whip until finally Pontius Pilate shouted "Enough!" But the mob, jostling close, would not quiet. "Crucify him!" they shouted. "Crucify the false prophet!" With a shrug, Pilate gave the order.

As Christ, bent and bloodied, lifted his cross on his back, 6-year-old Sarah Davis huddled close to her mom.

"Where are they taking him?" she asked. Around her, men and women wiped away tears, or let them fall, as "The Great Passion Play" drew to an end.

Every summer for the past 38 years, tens of thousands of families have made their way to this remote patch of the Ozark Mountains to witness Christ's death and resurrection.

Some drive for days to renew their faith, or to redirect their lives, through the ministry of drama.

The actors are all amateurs. By day, they deliver mail, repair toilets, teach history, exterminate bugs, coach football, fly planes for Wal-Mart.

At sunset, they pull on rough robes or plastic armor, then stride into the 4,100-seat amphitheater as priests and Pharisees, disciples, guards and lepers.

They lip-sync their lines to dialogue recorded years ago for broadcast over a screechy sound system.

Mary sounds robotic. Judas speaks with a Texas drawl. The script is stilted; the music, melodramatic.

Still, the play has become a touchstone of Christian culture, running five nights a week, from late April through October, since 1968. More than 7.5 million people have seen it.

Ticket sales fluctuate, but in many years, this is the best-attended outdoor drama in the United States, topping even famed Shakespeare festivals. Families hold reunions here; they route vacations through northwest Arkansas.

Donna Bailey, 54, a nurse from Tulsa, has returned five or six times, though the play never varies. "It keeps me humble," she said.

Nancy and Tyron Wheeler come back every year on their anniversary. "We use it to re-center our marriage and our lives," said Tyron, 44, a finance manager at a car dealership in Enid, Okla.

"Living in the world we live in, it's easy to get away from your values," he said. "This reminds us that our lives are supposed to be a reflection [of Christ's]. It gives me peace."

"The Great Passion Play" was founded by the late Gerald L.K. Smith, a mesmerizing and virulently anti-Semitic orator who traveled the nation in the 1930s and '40s, trying to rally support for "saving" white Christian America by deporting blacks and Jews.

By the early 1960s, Smith had alienated most of his followers. He retreated to Eureka Springs -- a spa town fallen on hard times -- and dedicated his life to launching the passion play and building a 67-foot-tall statue of Jesus, made of white mortar layered over a steel frame.

The enormous Christ of the Ozarks, blank-faced and vacant-eyed, still looms over Eureka Springs.

The play draws more than 100,000 tourists most years to this little town of 2,300 -- which has reinvented itself over the past 15 years as a funky haven for gay couples, aging hippies, Hell's Angels and anyone else who feels out of place in the Bible Belt.

Christian tourists might not venture into Road Dawgs Leather, but they do walk the dizzyingly steep and narrow downtown streets to admire the Victorian architecture. Bed-and-breakfast spas offer massages and facials; antiques and craft stores beckon with eclectic treasures.

The resort atmosphere attracts the raunchy along with the righteous, but the mix somehow seems to work.

"This is a very loving, forgiving town," said Mojo Reardon, 58, who sells lingerie from a hip boutique. "As long as you're not hurting anyone, people leave you alone. If you're a little esoteric, so much the better."

Those uncomfortable with the town's freewheeling atmosphere can keep busy on the passion play's 600-acre grounds. A $49 pass buys a theater ticket, a buffet supper and access to several attractions run by the same nonprofit foundation that manages the play.

In the summer, kids are everywhere; in the fall, senior citizens fill the trams.

Despite heavy marketing to churches and military bases, the passion play rarely sells out these days. The audience tops out at 700 to 900 during the week and 1,300 on Fridays.

Here in the lush mountaintop amphitheater, "The Great Passion Play" was denounced in its early years as crudely anti-Semitic.

The script was rewritten in 1982, after Smith's death.

The current version still portrays the Jewish high priests as greedy, power-hungry connivers who force a reluctant Pontius Pilate to order the crucifixion. But publicity director Mardell Bland said she has heard no complaints about anti-Semitism for years.

These days, she said, audience members seem to comment most often on the production's authentic feel.

The set is a nearly full-scale replica of an old Jerusalem street, so big that it is impossible to wire it to amplify live dialogue. The packed-dirt stage, as long as two football fields, runs from an imposing temple to an open-air market to a dissolute harem all in purple. When the story moves to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus and his disciples climb the wooded hill behind the stage to pray among the trees, under the stars.

The amphitheater feels as if it has been transported 2,000 years into history.

"It's just awesome. That's the only word for it. It makes you feel God is right there in your presence," said Doris Henady, who rented a tour bus to bring her grandchildren and several dozen old friends from Joplin, Mo.

The director can count on about 180 actors on any given night. They earn $15 to $22 a show, depending on their role for the evening. (Most have memorized the soundtrack and can lip-sync several parts convincingly.)

Despite the meager pay, many return year after year, sometimes bringing their newborns or their elderly parents on stage with them as extras.

"It's like a family," said Laine Dignan, 24, a history teacher who has been performing here since she was in high school.

Some become so emotional, they cannot bring themselves to jeer Jesus as the script requires. If they do muster a half-hearted shout of betrayal, they fall to their knees afterward, begging forgiveness.

Said actor Jeff Goostree, 37: "Night after night, I lose it."

A corporate pilot for Wal-Mart, he drives an hour each way from his home in Rogers, Ark., to perform.

"When the lights come on, you don't see the crowd," he said. "You forget where you are. You forget everything."

This depiction of the Last Supper is part of the production of "The Great Passion Play," which is put on in a 4,100-seat amphitheater in Eureka Springs, Ark. The amateur actors lip-sync their lines to dialogue that was recorded years ago.