At the Christian Life Center on Russell Street, Jesus has his own dressing room. He also has his own makeup artists, Deb Umphlett and Amber Gerhart, who apply a deep-red rouge called “fresh cut” to his bare torso. The women worry over whether the cuts look too symmetrical while Jesus uses a small vanity mirror to do his eyes. In the halls outside his room, 106 robed cast members prepare for the evening’s performance. This is the final dress rehearsal for the Christian Life Center’s annual Easter Alive Passion Play, which, in its 40-year off-and-on run depicting the last week of Christ’s life, has drawn as many as 7,000 attendees each Easter season from all over Montana, Idaho and Washington.
“I still don’t feel worthy,” says Keith White, who is playing Jesus for his eighth year. But, “I feel like I was called to do it, and when you’re called to do it, you do.” Among his biggest concerns about taking on the role is that “people that watch the play see me out in public, [and] if I do something stupid there—Christianity is such an easy target anyway for a lot of people—and if I do something stupid there, Jesus is going to take the strike instead of me, and that was a hard one for me to get past.”
The other hard part about the role, he says, is staying trim: “It’s getting a little harder every year to look physically the part, being over 40 and trying to pull off 33.”
In fact, in his dressing room, the 42-year-old White looks more like Willem Defoe in The Last Temptation of Christ than the Boyce Lumber employee and married father of two he is by day. In preparation for his transition from Missoulian to Jesus, White says, “I pray and definitely watch my eating for a while before—and sit-ups, you know.”
But he also emphasizes that the focus of Easter Alive is the play’s message more than any individual’s performance. That message, he says, “is very simple, and that’s just that Jesus loves us, and he did what he did to bring us back into God’s grace. It’s no more difficult than that.”
“We’re just about being a blessing to our community, and just about being an encouragement to the ones that come [to the show],” says Christian Life Center music pastor and Easter Alive Co-Director Nancy Ward. She and her husband, Scott, came to the Christian Life Center from Minnesota in 1994 and have been organizing the annual Passion Play for 10 years. While the second half of the play—the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection—remains similar each year, Ward works in collaboration with other congregation members to write a different, themed first half of the play each year.
One year, the theme focused on the disciple Peter, who Ward says felt like a failure, and on how Jesus might relate to someone who feels like a failure. This year, “the theme is that Jesus was a servant, and that to be Christ didn’t mean to be a king and lord it over everyone. It meant to serve, and we need to learn to do the same, just like he told his disciples to do the same,” Ward says.
Auditions for the play began around mid-January, and the entire cast—which feels like one big family by Easter, Ward says—has been rehearsing three times a week every week for two-and-a-half months.
Before the final dress rehearsal begins, Ward and Co-Director Michelle Watson gather the cast in a meeting room to pray and go over final director’s notes. Under a card table, robed children sneak Pringles and Skittles. One teen crosses the room in full shepherd garb and 21st-century headphones. Another man in a sleeveless costume stands, muscular arms crossed, with thick stage makeup covering his tattoos.
Anyone can audition for a part in the play, Ward says, and a handful of cast members belong to other churches around town. As for the Jesus role, it’s also open to anyone, though White humbly shrugs when asked if the part is, by now, pretty much his. As for whether Jesus has come to feel like his alter ego, White gives a flat no. “And I think if it does, it’s definitely time for me to stop doing it. But like I said, I still feel totally inadequate,” he says. How does he account, then, for audience members who leave the play sobbing each year? “God says in our weakness, he is strong,” White answers. “So I guess that’s what happens when I feel inadequate. It’s not about me…if I’m touching people like that, it’s not me.”
That selfless attitude, Ward says, is very much in the spirit of the performance. No one comes to her during auditions asking to be Peter or John, she says. “They really are doing it with the right heart. It’s just a way to share their faith. It’s a way to say, ‘This is what Jesus has done for me.’”
Ward also stresses that the play is not a “proselytizing effort,” and that while the center’s pastor, David Tonn, will offer prayer at the end of the performance if someone wants to become Christian, “we’re not trying to make you a member of this church,” Ward says.
Rather, Watson adds, “Our goal is to tell the truth of the Bible and [to share] what Jesus came and did for you individually…and then if they need further guidance, we’re here for them.”
Last year, Watson elaborates, “we had hundreds come forward for altar calls and give their life over to the Lord.” Ward recalls one man who came forward after the play two years ago, “and he said, ‘This is what I’ve been searching for my whole life. I’ve had a hole in my heart my whole life. This is the day that I have lived for for 40-some years.’ And his life just turned around,” she says.
White jumps in: “The play shows [characters] that have done things that you would think are totally unforgivable…so that lets people who think ‘There’s no way God could love me’ see [the play] and go, ‘Oh, he is that big.’”
Indeed, everything about the performance is big. The room where the audience sits (the same room where services are held) is gymnasium-sized. The stage, which temporarily replaces the center’s altar each year, is tall and vast. And when the 100-plus cast breaks into contemporary rock ’n’ roll-style worship music over a high-tech sound system, the effect is striking. Even the individual acting is heavy on sweeping hand gestures and dramatic expressions. But despite the grand nature of it all, the quick takeaway from Easter Alive is that its purpose is far bigger than any stage, any production, any actor.
Yet given the weight of their subject, the cast of Easter Alive wields a light touch. Ward says the actor who plays Satan showed up at a recent rehearsal with a light saber. A disciple at the Last Supper once rehearsed with a chocolate bar instead of a loaf of bread. Last year’s Pontius Pilot didn’t tell his wife he’d shaved his head for the part until he whipped off his headgear in front of her during a dress rehearsal. And to reward themselves for all the work that went into this year’s Passion Play, the crew of disciples and shepherds and choreographers and set designers will celebrate with Jesus and Satan this weekend at Pizza Hut.
The Easter Alive Passion Play continues to run at 7:30 PM March 24–26, with an additional 3 PM matinee March 26 and a 6 PM show Easter Sunday, at the Christian Life Center, 3801 Russell St. Admission is free; good-will donations are accepted. Call 542-0353.