By Linda T. Gracey
A group of local residents waited two years and traveled thousands of miles to witness a Passion play. It was no ordinary Passion play but a production presented every 10 years in the Alpine village of Oberammergau, Germany.
(The Associated Press) Frederik Mayet plays Jesus in Oberammergau, Germany.
About 2,400 people, or about half of the town's population, stage the five-hour production to honor a promise made to God by their predecessors nearly 400 years ago. It was in 1633, after months of suffering and death from the bubonic plague, that the villagers swore an oath that they would perform a play depicting the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ every 10 years if the deaths ended. The first play was performed in 1634.
Performances this year began in May and ended earlier this month with the group from Altoona witnessing it in late September.
Elizabeth Happeny of Altoona said her reason for going on the trip, which included visits to other Germany sights, was to witness the Passion play.
An English instructor at Penn State Altoona and a former English and theater teacher at Altoona Area High School, Happeny said she was "struck dumb" by the play.
"I couldn't believe a little town of 5,000 people would have so many talented musicians, singers and actors. I have seen many shows on Broadway and this rivaled anything I have seen," she said.
With the play being performed outdoors, the audience was almost transformed back to the days when Jesus lived on the Earth and gave them a dramatic sense of what his life was like.
"It showed Jesus as a person, holding babies and talking to people among the crowd," said Jan Durbin of Altoona.
"It was a very real representation of what might have taken place a couple of thousand years ago," said her husband, Hampton.
"It strengthened my faith," said Happeny, who is a member of St. James Lutheran Church in Altoona. "It made me appreciate the sacrifice [Jesus] made for not only me, but for all of us."
"Not only is Jesus God, but he also was a man. The people who were against him were against him as a man."
"It was the man they tortured and ridiculed," she said.
Jan Durbin said watching Jesus life acted out in the village was a confirmation of their faith for her and her husband, who are members of St. Therese Catholic Church in Altoona. She said she didn't think people could come away from the play and say they have no faith.
"The play makes it very personal," Happeny said.
The production spoke to them in these ways despite being five hours long and being performed in German.
"The language was not a barrier at all," Happeny said. She said theater-goers were given a script written in German and English to follow along, but most watched without it.
Scenes from familiar stories before the time of Christ are interspersed throughout the production to show the interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments. Those scenes are depicted by motionless actors with a narrator explaining the situation.
"They were like a postcard," said Jan Durbin, who said the actors illustrated Moses receiving the Ten Commandments and the worshipping of the golden calf.
"They were beautiful and colorful scenes," said William Beard of Altoona. "They made you think beyond the Passion."
The play began at 2:30 p.m. and ended about 11 p.m. with a several hour intermission for dinner.
"I thought people would give up and leave," Beard said, "but everybody was into watching it."
Beard said the audience became so much a part of the play that it seemed like they should be yelling with the crowd during different scenes, such as when the actors told Pilate to free Barabbas.
"It was almost as if you came out onto the street somewhere and came upon the scenes. That's what it was like," he said.
"It was an incredible re-creation of history," Hampton Durbin said.
He noted that the story was communicated for thousands of years without the use of radio, television or the Internet.
He said watching the play was good therapy and that the people of biblical times had to overcome many difficulties.
"It enhanced my well-being and gave me a positive feeling. It gave me strength and faith to carry on and validated what I believe in," he said.
Duane Bordell of Altoona, who arranged for the trip through Myers Coach Line Inc., said the play was "very emotional and very real-like. You could almost reach out and touch Jesus."
Betty Weber of Tyrone and a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance at Fuoss Mills said words can't describe how meaningful the play was to her.
"It was happening before our eyes," she said. "To see what Christ did for us. You saw him suffer, how people treated him. You can't sit and watch that and not be affected."
Beard, a member of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Altoona, said the play made him appreciate his faith and deepened it. The play was started in the 16th century with a promise to God, and Christianity is still in existence today, he said.
"I see a lot of belief out there. [The play] reaffirmed our beliefs, our faith. It was a spiritual experience. It was a good experience," he said.