All Articles
January 19, 2016

An Epic Testament to Theatre: The Premiere of Sarah Ruhl’s PASSION PLAY


The below is part of our Premiere Productions series. Click here to learn more about other first productions of stellar works.

The Play:
Passion Play

The Author:
Sarah Ruhl

Premiere Theater:
Arena Stage (Washington D.C.)

Premiere Date:
September 12, 2005

The Names You’ll Want to Know:
Longtime Arena Stage Artistic Director, Molly Smith, directed. Smith is a champion of new work. She has had a pivotal role in the development of shows like Next to Normal and How I Learned to Drive.

The Stories You’ll Want To Know:
Passion Play is an ambitious piece of theatre. We witness three passion plays (which are religious events that reenact the crucifixion of Jesus Christ) in three vastly different eras: Elizabethan England, Hitler’s Germany, and America at the height of the Vietnam War. During its world premiere, the production clocked in at three hours and forty minutes – longer than anything playing on Broadway right now.

Passion Play began as Ruhl’s graduate senior thesis under Paula Vogel at Brown University. She wrote two one-acts about passion plays, never intending to connect them. After a commission from Arena Stage and encouragement from Molly Smith, Ruhl wrote what would become Passion Play’s third act and began to intertwine the three distinct stories into a masterwork of theatre.

Before performances began, director Molly Smith found herself in an intense dialogue with Arena Stage’s patrons. Some wanted to discuss the provocative religious themes of the play while others wanted to know how it could justifiably run for almost four hours. Many of the run’s post show discussions invited concerned theatre goers to share their thoughts with Smith herself.

This was not the only hurdle Passion Play‘s world premiere overcame. The first preview was canceled due to technical difficulties. Considering the production featured twelve actors portraying nearly 30 characters, 100 costumes, original music, and enough set pieces to represent the three distinct time periods, it took a lot of technical muscle to pull off.

However, Passion Play was met with positive reviews. Even critics conceded that the risk Arena Stage took in producing such a politically engaged, conceptually complicated, and elaborate piece of theatre paid off. The world premiere of Passion Play is a testament to the vivacity of new American work.

To purchase a copy of Passion Play, click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.