Annual drive-in Passion Play draws thousands to Salisbury Baptist Temple

April 19, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- All that was left undampened by Friday night's torrential downpour was the dedication of the actors and the enjoyment of their audience, dry in their cars and listening to the dialogue on radio.

The miracles unfolded in the cool evening dark after a hot, sunny day: The lame man picked up his bed and walked, the blind man saw again and no one was clean enough to cast the first stone at the woman taken in adultery.

But overhead, thunder grumbled, lightning slashed the glowering clouds and finally the skies opened as if weeping for the inexorable tragedy: the grim procession to Calvary; the "thud, thud, thud" of nails piercing hands and feet, then the cross bearing the bloody and stricken Jesus standing above the gaping multitude.

It followed from cross to tomb, then Resurrection in three days and finally, Christ's ascension into heaven, levitating slowly into the darkness -- on a hidden boom attached to a front-end loader -- to rededicate the tradition of Easter, Christendom's most sacred holiday.

The Passion Play, a dramatic retelling of the Easter story like a stage play at a drive-in theater, is in its fourth year at the Salisbury Baptist Temple. It attracts several thousand people for its six performances.

More than 200 cars were packed in tight rows for Friday night's 1 1/2 -hour rain-blasted performance, watching the action on the grassy hill that is the stage. Along the crest is the set, sand-colored, plywood structures side by side representing Jerusalem's gates, the Temple, the palace, the upper room where the Last Supper took place. Shifting lights guide spectators' attention to the point of action.

Off to one side is Golgotha, the hill of Calvary where the three crosses -- for Christ and the two thieves -- were etched on the night sky by floodlights boring through the sheets of rain.

The audience felt the moment and responded enthusiastically with horns and blinking headlights when the Rev. Oren Perdue asked if they had enjoyed the play.

David Todd, a retired Prince George's County firefighter who came with his sister, said, "I'm very interested in these things now because my daughter has been a Dominican nun in Nashville since last August. She wrote me to read several Bible passages about this and now I'll have to tell her what I've seen. And I'm not even Catholic."

The play, brainchild of Mr. Perdue, has been embraced by the congregation. Several hundred members devote weeks of work to the production as actors and behind-the-scenes helpers.

"The most important part is that we get to tell the true story of Jesus; it is the only way a lot of people will get it," said Gary Larmore, an appliance salesman by day and in the Passion Play a Roman soldier whose two-horse chariot clatters up the hill carrying King Herod to his palace.

Mr. Perdue, 57, a full-time farmer in addition to being a minister, said it is the only outdoor Passion Play he knows of "between here and Florida."

This year's final performance will be at 8 tonight at the church on Hobbs Road, off Route 50 about 3 miles east of Salisbury. There is no admission charge, but offering envelopes are distributed. The telephone number is (410) 546-4455.

The Salisbury Baptist Temple met in a motel for several years until it moved in 1979 to its present low, rambling church on 17 acres outside the city.

The hill that forms the stage for the Passion Play was created by bulldozers moving earth for the church and its outbuildings, Mr. Perdue said.

The Passion Plays and Christmas pageants began in response to encroaching secularization, he said. "We've got a lot of gross ignorance about Scriptures . . . Bibles have been taken out of schools, and only a small minority attends church."

In the late 1960s, after watching a Salisbury Christmas parade "with nothing in it to do with the birth of Christ," he persuaded members of the church he then attended to enter a Nativity float the following year, including real animals. "We won first prize," he said, "then we took it to the church lawn and had a real-life Nativity scene during Christmas week."

It was a short step, then, when his new church opened, to hold the Christmas pageant in the drive-in setting where action and dialogue replaced a passive display, the preacher said.

The Passion Play debuted several years ago after the rain-out of the annual Easter sunrise service. "With the sunrise service we only had one shot at it, and a lot of it was what is in the Passion Play," he said. "We decided to make it a bigger production and hold it for six nights, the two weekends up to Easter."

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