Lucky for Goodman Theatre audiences, playwright Sarah Ruhl does not believe in the separation between church and stage. Her “Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts” is the second major new play opening this month to deal head on with the thorny issue of religion, and it’s easily the best. Unfurling over three superbly crafted acts, Ruhl’s fiercely imaginative work depicts the staging of the Passion of Christ—his trial, death and resurrection—by three different sets of people at three turbulent points in history: sixteenth-century England; a Bavarian town in 1934 Germany; and South Dakota, United States, circa 1969. Ruhl’s concern is with what happens when ordinary individuals telling an extraordinary story dangerously lose sight of fact from fiction. As well, she poses the question of whether the telling of this story over time has ultimately hurt or helped us. In hindsight, act one is the play’s cleverest because it lays the groundwork of dialogue, verbal motifs and character connections that will come full circle when echoes and semi-reprisals of them will appear in the later acts. The religious imagery (red skies, multiplying fish) may be a bit heavy-handed here, but it makes for some stunning stage pictures, especially against the clean lines of Allen Moyer’s relaxed, multi-functional unit set. The second act, the play’s emotional core, features a chilling cameo by Adolf Hitler and best illustrates Ruhl’s anger with the hypocrisy of world leaders who manipulate Christianity to promote a very un-Christian agenda. The final act, making heavy use of magical realism and replete with cameos by Queen Elizabeth, Hitler (again), Ronald Reagan and a procession of giant fish (!), sees Ruhl’s play become less focused, unwieldy and almost crack under the strain of its own ambition. But by this point it matters little. The searing theatricality of director Mark Wing-Davey’s nimbly paced production has kicked you in the gut while Ruhl’s writing and characters have etched themselves in the brain. “I don’t know whether this country needs more religion or less religion,” a character says at the end of “Passion Play.” Even after three and a half hours, I don’t know either. I only know that this is the play that everyone will be talking about and rightly so. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, (312)443-3800. This production is now closed.