The temptations of Sarah Ruhl’s “Passion Play” include cameos by Elizabeth I, Adolf Hitler and Ronald Reagan, each briefly swanning through with a stateliness that keeps them well above the fray.
And such a fray it is. Ruhl’s three-part cycle peeks behind the scenes of centuries-old passion plays to look at the ordinary people playing Jesus, Pilate and the two Marys. Their lives are often in conflict with their religion, and sometimes also with their nations.
Wait, you’re saying with apprehension — “cycle”? Yep: This three-play event is marathon theater, topping three and a half hours (actually, pushing four on Monday’s opening night). But as Washington Post critic Peter Marks wrote when “Passion Play” premiered at Arena Stage a decade ago, Ruhl’s thoughtful, character-rich drama never seems to plod. And the chief virtue of the new staging now at Forum Theatre is a playful and precise acting style that director Michael Dove’s ensemble absolutely nails.
Jumbo shows have become a recognizable part of Forum’s i.d.; see the company’s triumphs with “Angels in America” (both parts) and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” As with “Angels,” Dove’s approach here is informally epic. This “Passion Play” uses the full width of the spacious Silver Spring black box theater for a strip stage with the audience on two sides; scaffolding is erected on one end, with a platform and a giant wooden cross for the various passion plays on the other. Performers mingle with the audience at the top of each act, pulling costume pieces off a rolling rack.
In other words, nothing fancy, yet the show somehow expands into something big. Part of that is the measured pace: Dove guides the actors to take their time, especially in scenes of seduction. (There are lots of those.) In the first play, the English Rose playing the Virgin Mary (Laura C. Harris) lusts after the hunk enacting Jesus (Benjamin Cunis), but gives in to the fishmonger playing Pilate (Jon Hudson Odom). In the second, Cunis and Odom — now as men playing Jesus and Pilate in 1934 Germany — are gays keeping their affair undercover from the Nazis. As the third part starts in 1969 and skids forward through decades, Cunis and Odom are South Dakotan brothers both in love with Harris’s character.
Faith and guilt, love and jealousy — Ruhl sets them all in motion against the rich but oddly recessive backdrop of church and state. Ruhl’s writing is calm and poetic, loaded with imagery and occasional fantasies such as the giant puppet fish that school across the stage from time to time. It unspools like a novel, though she leaves some of her narrative strands pretty loose.
In particular, the politics are unexpectedly thin and prone to caricature (national leaders as drama queens), even when Hitler (Tonya Beckman, who also plays an addled Ronald Reagan and a divine Elizabeth I) blesses the local Passion Play as superb anti-Jewish propaganda. Ruhl’s interest in religion, too, seems practically clinical: she uses it to develop detailed characters, not to debate philosophical questions Tony Kushner-style. Her hints and insinuations don’t cut into her subject.
Dove doesn’t punch up the Big Picture elements lurking around, either. Instead, he and his adroit ensemble zero in on the relationships and inner conflicts of the regular folk, so the show is full of close, tense one-on-one moments — and in this, it’s awfully good. Odom is frequently in the middle of things; he transforms credibly from surly Elizabethan fishmonger to charming gay German soldier to traumatized Vietnam vet, with the role of Pilate a complicating factor for each of these figures. Cunis and Harris also fluidly adjust their modes from English formality to American angst as their triangle with Odom rotates.
Jonathan Feuer brings sharp comedy as a director, Shayna Blass is touching as another Mary across the centuries, Megan Graves plays a village idiot without being too precious — all 11 actors are plausible. The ensemble brings such a sure touch that the spell lasts a long time, even if by the end it’s a surprise how much this clever, absorbing drama hedges its topical bets.
By Sarah Ruhl. Directed by Michael Dove. Scenic design, Dove and Andrew Cissna; lights, Andrew Cissna; costumes, Chelsey Schuller; composer, Eric Shimelonis; sound design, Thomas Sowers. With Frank Britton, Edward Christian, Matt Dewberry, and Michael Litchfield. About three hours and 45 minutes. Through April 11 at Forum Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Tickets $30. Call 301-588-8279 or visit www.forum-theatre.com