For this Family, Passion Runs in the Blood

For eight generations, the Meiers have reenacted the final days of Christ's mission on earth

Every year, from February until April in Florida, and from June through August in South Dakota, tens of thousands of visitors see a performance of the Black Hills Passion Play.

Since it was brought to the United States over 65 years ago, the passion play has continued the seasonal cycle without interruption, whether on tour or in its two permanent homes, which makes it the leading candidate in this country for longest running dramatic production of any kind, according to Johanna Meier, the co-producer and director. And fittingly so, considering the subject and the company's reverential interpretation.

The production focuses on the last seven days of Jesus' earthly mission. The events unfold in amphitheaters built in proportion to the scope of the scenes. The one in Spearfish, S.D.—the largest amphitheater in the United States—has a 650-ft. stage. Its sister in Lake Wales, Fla., has a similar multi-building set with a 350-ft. stage. The theatres sit 6,400 and 3,500 respectively, who watch a cast that swells to nearly 200 with extras joining the 25 professional actors. Then there are the camels, horses, and other animals.

But numbers alone don't tell the story of this reenactment of the greatest story ever told. The Black Hills Passion Play has been a labor of love and commitment for one particular family and a production that has influenced the lives of both audiences and actors.

Feedback often comes in unlikely places. Meier, who is the eighth generation of her family connected with the passion play, remembers the time she was on tour in Minneapolis, singing professional opera. Alocal make-up woman noticed a flyer for the play in her dressing room, but Meier never mentioned her family was responsible for the production. She still vividly recalls the woman saying how “it changed our lives. The family went to see it years (before) and as a result became practicing Christians.”

Johanna's father, Josef Meier, arrived from Germany with the play in 1932. It was then called the Luenen Passion Play, after the town of Luenen in western Germany where it could be traced in different forms through the Middle Ages to Easter presentations at Cappenberg Monastery around 1242. (In comparison, the village-wide Oberammergau Passion Play began its presentation cycle in the Bavarian countryside in 1632.)

With Europe on the brink of World War II, Meier translated the passion play into English and brought it to America—first stop: Pittsburgh. When most of the cast decided to return to Germany, Meier replaced them with American actors, among whom was his future wife, Clare.

In 1939, the Luenen Passion Play was re-named when it found a permanent home in the Black Hills in Spearfish, a majestic setting near Mount Rushmore. When World War II rationing interrupted tourist travel, the government waived restrictions for the company so that it could tour the states as a morale builder. By the final tour in 1962, the Passion Play had visited 643 cities across the United States and 25 in Canada.

By then, the second permanent amphitheater was set up in Lake Wales—centrally located, 57 miles east of Tampa, and 55 miles southwest of Orlando, with the Bok Singing Tower nearby. Josef and Clare Meier appeared in both Lake Wales and in Spearfish. When they retired in 1991, he had played Christ in more than 9,000 performances, and she had played Mary, Mother of Jesus, 7,000 times. Now daughter Johanna appears as Mary, while Roger Iwan grew into the role of Christ under the tutelage of Meier.

“I began listening to my mother as a child, and I was filled with her interpretation,” Johanna Meier says. “Gradually and thoughtfully, I went into it. It's the kind of role that takes a good many years to absorb.” She explains that “it has been such an intrinsic part of my life that it's hard to separate out—the impact on every way of my life has been tremendous,” especially with her parents “being so deeply immersed in their roles” for 60 years.

She herself has played every female part. Although she took time for a 15-year career singing major roles with the Metropolitan Opera as well as internationally, since 1991, she has poured all her energy into the Passion Play.

It has also become a way of life for Roger Iwan, who gradually alternated the role of Christ with Josef Meier until taking over when the patriarch retired. “For the first few years [the role of Christ] had quite an impact on my life,” says Iwan, who sees his role in the Passion Play as much more than an acting job. “Certain scenes sent shivers up and down me, [and] those thoughts stay with you—what Christ might have been going through.” These insights, he stresses, are important to remember and to convey.

In his own life, the impact from the role and its constant study in various sources has led him “out of run-of-the-mill drama.” Off season, he will only perform in dramatic religious pieces in churches.

The Black Hills Passion Play isn't affiliated with any one denomination, but aims to appeal to many with its scripturally—based traditional drama.

Johanna Meier vividly recalls an exceptionally large gathering in 1993 when many youth groups stopped on their way to meet Pope John Paul II in Denver. Before one performance, the Spearfish amphitheater swelled with 8,000 for a Mass concelebrated by two archbishops, 11 bishops, and 60 priests.

“They were so excited and involved,” Meier says of their reaction to the play. “The applause after every scene was so intense.”

1998 Season: Lake Wales, Fla.: March 1 through April 12, Easter Sunday (on Alt. 27A), call 1-800-622-8383. Performances: Sun-Tues., Fri., Sat. at 7 p.m. Wed. at 3 p.m.

Spearfish, S.D.: June 2 through Aug. 30 (off I-90), call 1-800-457-016. Performances: Sun., Tues., Thurs. at 8 p.m.

Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Conn.