Manitoba’s Passion Play just outside of La Riviere is returning for a major milestone this year, once again giving people a chance to experience the last few days of Jesus’ life.
This year marks 20 years that Oak Valley Productions has been putting on the play.
Bill Thiessen plays Jesus, a role he has played for the past 11 years. Thiessen has been with the play for 18 years, and it has become a family affair.
“My family is involved as well, my wife is the backstage make-up coordinator,” he said. “Our children too… since they were four or five years old they were on stage. They grew up and took on additional roles.”
Thiessen said that’s pretty common among the cast. “There are at least six or seven family groups that come with two or more family members,” he said. “I think that’s a testament to the family orientation of the play, both backstage and for the audience.”
The bulk of the play covers Jesus’ last week through his arrest, The Last Supper and his crucifixion.
About five or six years ago, the play was adapted to add more of Jesus’ life, including the Christmas Story and some of Jesus’ miracles.
The play is in an outdoor theatre just east of La Riviere.
“It’s a little bit unique to see an outdoor performance like that,” Thiessen said. “You have to contend with the weather, and we haven’t always hit it 100 per cent in terms of not getting rained out.”
Thiessen said seeing a familiar story presented in a different setting is part of what makes the experience resonate for people.
“It’s putting yourself back 2,000 years and just seeing it acted out in an authentic matter,” he said. “We try to be very true to the text, to the Bible stories and the words that Jesus spoke.”
There may be some additional characters to help the story flow, but Thiessen said he’s never heard anyone say the play didn’t feel true to the Bible.
Thiessen said there are plenty of people that return to see the play every summer. “We have lots of both return cast and return audience members,” he said. “It’s just a different way of experiencing the story, and I think they get a lot out of it.”
Thiessen said in a lot of ways they are preaching to the choir, as most people who come to the play are familiar with the scripture.
“We hope too that it brings that message to people that maybe haven’t really cracked open a Bible or gone to church for a while or maybe ever,” he said.
It takes a lot of volunteer time to put the show together, from the actors on the stage to behind the scenes to people taking tickets and directing traffic in and out.
Local churches supply cast meals before performances to help things run smoothly.
“We have people coming from everywhere from Killarney to Winnipeg and Steinbach,” Thiessen said. “It’s a pretty wide circle of commitment.”
The show runs July 6 and 7 at 6:30 p.m. and July 12, 13 and 14 at 7:30 p.m.
On July 14 Celebrant Archbishop Albert Legatt of the Saint Boniface Diocese will lead outdoor mass at 4 p.m.
Adult tickets are $18 in advance ($20 at the gate). For more information visit www.passionplay.ca/tickets.