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A weekly series focused on Bloomington-Normal's arts community and other major events. Made possible with support from PNC Financial Services.

After 100 years on stage, a final curtain call for the ‘American Passion Play’

The Last Supper, a scene from "American Passion Play." The production's final season opens Saturday at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, concluding its 100-year history.
Courtesy of
American Passion Play
The Last Supper, a scene from "American Passion Play." The production's final season opens Saturday at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, concluding its 100-year history.

The “American Passion Play” has run in Bloomington longer than anywhere else in the country – 100 years, to be exact. The Easter tradition ends this spring with the production’s final shows in the theater built to support it.

It was around 1915 that Delmar Darrah envisioned an “American Passion Play” for the city of Bloomington. This was before mass media; the first commercial radio broadcast would not take place for another five years. Unique to Darrah’s vision was the inclusion of Jesus’ ministry. Other passion plays frequently focus on Jesus’ death and resurrection which marks the Christian celebration of Easter.

Another remarkable point: Darrah, a professor of elocution at Illinois Wesleyan University, was a noted Freemason who designed the Scottish Rite Temple for two purposes.

“What’s now the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts (BCPA) doubled as both the place where the ‘Passion Play’ was to be put on—the theater portion of that building was designed specifically to house the play, as well as the rest of the building to support the masonic community in Bloomington-Normal,” said Bob Trefzger, who plays Judas.

Two years later after the Scottish Rite Temple was built, Darrah’s “American Passion Play” premiered. While it has been altered and updated over the years (and took a brief pandemic pause), Bloomington’s widely known passion play is the longest running of its kind in the United States.

Now, it is coming to an end, but not before four final performances at the BCPA. The “American Passion Play" opens Saturday, March 10, and runs consecutive Saturdays through April 1.

Nathan Bassett plays Jesus and has spent the better portion of his life in the cast.

“I started around 1975,” he said. “I was out for a few years and came back.” In total, Bassett estimates he’s spent about 35 years involved in the “Passion Play.”

Bassett cites two reasons for coming back year after year.

“There’s a lot of passion in telling the story,” he said. “Not just the theatrical production of it, but the story itself. That’s one reason. The other reason, I would say, is the family.”

Bassett said coming back after the pandemic wasn’t a hard decision, through there were concerns about drumming up enough volunteers to fill up the enormous cast.

Trefzger said without additional fundraising over a two-year span during the pandemic, it wouldn’t have mattered if they had enough cast members or not. He cites a gradual decline in audience members over the past 20 years as the primary reason for shuttering the production after its centennial season.

“We’ve known that, financially, it’s been difficult,” Trefzger said.

Cast members were told last fall that 2023 would be the final season of “American Passion Play.”

“I think we’ve all had some time to process through what this might look like without it,” Bassett said. “We’re just 100 years of this 2,000-year story. We’re just a drop in the bucket, as is all of our lives.”

Trefzger joined the cast of Bloomington’s “American Passion Play” in 1965 and met his wife of 49 years there five years later. He says the play has served a pivotal role in his life—but it is not his whole life.

“We’re passing the baton now,” he said. “This ministry has had its beginning and its end. Nevertheless, when people see the play this year, we also hope they will take this additional message that they are to go—as well as us—and make disciples of all nations.

The “American Passion Play’s” final season runs Saturdays through April 1 at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, 600 N. East Street. Single tickets are $25, available at americanpassionplay.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.
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