The Passion of the Priest-Producer

A pre-season visit to the site of the Lake County Passion Play in Lakeport, Calif., where preparations are underway for this year’s presentation. By Walter and Sue Ellin Browder.

Age sets easily on the hills of northern California just beyond Clear Lake. Here on what was once the Beltramo Ranch, where the Lake County Passion Play is presented each year, steep hills wear the flowers and shrubs comfortably.

Underfoot, the spongy brown grass has already begun to show fresh shoots of green. To escape the boggy lowlands, sheep on the distant hillsides climb to higher ground to graze.

The vineyards are bare. The olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane are pruned. Black oaks cast stark silhouettes against roiling white clouds.

Meandering over the empty fields on a recent visit, we could easily imagine ourselves walking in the countryside outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. There’s no hint of the passionate drama people are preparing to present here, a loving reenactment of the sacred drama that changed human history.

A few months from now, on the weekend of May 17-18, this eternal drama will come to life. These ordinary hills will be vibrant with pageantry. And once again, as it has for 27 years, an amateur cast of 150 will re-create one of the world’s best Passion plays before audiences of 3,000 to 4,000 theatergoers, who bring their own chairs.

An original musical score echoing Gregorian chant will fill the air. Gleaming white Arabian horses will prance. Legions of Roman soldiers will march. Crowds will cry, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” And an actor playing Jesus will carry a huge, heavy cross 615 feet up that painful road to Calvary.

But that’s all to come, more than three months from this, the first Sunday of Lent — and more than eight weeks after Holy Week. The drama is staged in May because the grounds border Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California. Any earlier in the year, the ground may flood under more than a foot of water: a lesson learned the hard way some years back.

What is actor Jose Angel Martinez, who will play Jesus this year, doing right now? How does he make his living? “He’s a carpenter,” says Father Philip Ryan, the producer of the play.

Ah. Of course. What else would he be?

“The Passion play is presented for its deep spiritual value, not only for the participants, but for the entire community,” Father Ryan says. “It is very necessary to maintain an atmosphere conducive to prayer and meditation when we present this play. That’s why we ask people not to bring food or drink onto the grounds. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to walk with Jesus on that painful road to Calvary if one didn’t abstain from food and drink. The Passion play offers people a time to be totally united with him in mind and spirit, and that calls for great concentration on our part.”

We continued across the valley floor where we first entered the ranch and where four stages are placed for the re-enactment of Christ’s passion. Up a steep slope is planted the Garden of Gethsemane. Far at the top of the hill stands a lone, watchful, 150-year-old, 20-foot Byzantine cross, which was brought here from a Catholic cemetery in nearby Kelseyville. Years ago, Father Ryan blessed the cross, which is illuminated year-round and stands as a constant reminder to those who travel here that these are hallowed grounds.

One neighbor in Lakeport once objected to the cross, fearing it would attract “undesirables.” But at a packed public hearing in the Lakeport courthouse, a crowd proudly and boldly defended the cross that marks this sacred place. The cross stayed.

Father Ryan, who first joined us after we pulled in at the gate, is with us. He’s a tall, thin, ascetically-boned priest with white hair and heavy, graying eyebrows. He speaks with a light Irish brogue.

We paused near the four stages on the valley floor — the Last Supper, Caiaphas’ palace, Pontius Pilate’s house and Herod’s palace. Two of these stages were rebuilt last year at a cost of $6,000.

We passed the stages and start up the hillside, where we come to Gethsemane, a garden spot planted with palm trees, olive trees, shrubs and flowers. This is the garden where Our Lord will pray and be arrested by soldiers. In the garden, a large rock made of many smaller rocks and at which Christ will pray, was donated by Peter Hale’s quarry.

“This is the most natural setting for a passion play. Many people tell me they see Jesus or angels in the clouds,” says Father Ryan, who has been with the Passion play since it was first presented on Palm Sunday in 1981.

Father Ryan is not just the play’s producer. He’s also chief gardener, groom and shepherd. During the off season, he trims bushes, clips olive trees, carries rocks and feeds the sheep, llamas and horses. The sheep on the far hillside know Father Ryan so well they come to the sound of his voice.

Standing here one feels irresistibly drawn toward those last, dramatic days in the earthly life of Jesus Christ: from his passion to his ascension. During the resurrection scene, dozens of white doves will be released. “The resurrection scene is the answer to all our questions about our journey in life,” Father Ryan told us. “It assures us that our destiny is to live eternally.”

Sue Ellin Browder writes from Willits,

California. Walter, her husband, passed away soon after co-writing this report.


Lake County Passion Play

Phone: (707) 279-0349

E-mail: [email protected]


Ancient Well, Eternal Water

In time for the first Sunday of Lent, a visit to Jacob’s Well, located in what is now the West Bank of the Palestinian Territories. This is the site at which Jesus began his long march toward Calvary by confirming to a Samaritan woman — and thus the world — that he was indeed the Messiah. By Stephen Bugno.