Eureka! it’s Arkansas – The Great Passion Play, Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Holly Miller

When residents of this tiny Ozark community stage a play, everyone gets into the act. The result is the best show in town and the largest outdoor drama in America.

Sharon and Wilson DeLano were vacationing in country-music mecca Branson, Mo., when they noticed the billboards touting Eureka Springs, site of Arkansas’ passion play. They checked the map–48 miles of breathtaking Ozark scenery– and decided to take a risk and make the trip. Eight years later, they’re still talking about it.

“We’ve seen the play three times, and I’d see it again tomorrow if I could,” says Sharon, a St. Louis resident. “It’s that good.”

So good, that the drama documenting Christ’s last week on earth has attracted five million people since its debut 25 years ago. So good, that the play’s producers boast that one in five fans returns annually to witness the lavish production. But such endorsements don’t surprise Bob Foster, who jokes that he brought his tombstone with him when he relocated to Eureka Springs three years ago.

“I don’t plan to go anywhere,” quips Foster, executive director of the Elna M. Smith Foundation, sponsor of the play. “There’s a sense of tranquility here. People come back year after year not so much to see something new, but to experience the feeling of peace.”

The play’s ranking as America’s foremost under-the-stars production is based on attendance figures: Eureka Springs’ Great Passion Play tops the list of 92 outdoor dramas in the country. National fame aside, the play is “local” theater at its best. The 300-member cast is recruited from the town’s residents, and many area youth–veterans of hundreds of performances–can recite every line of dialogue from memory. Kids don’t play cowboys and Indians around Eureka Springs; they play Great Passion Play.

“A number of children have been in the play almost since birth,” says Foster. “Mothers carry them onstage as babies, and entire families participate season after season. Since the parents work and have lives to live apart from the theater, we average about 200 performers on any given night. Actors sign up for three, four, or five nights a week, and many have perfect attendance. The play enables families to be together for several hours, enjoy a ministry, and have part-time jobs. One woman is 85 years old and has been with us since opening night in 1968.”

Additional townspeople perform important behind-the-scenes chores. An animal crew oversees the play’s livestock (camels, sheep, donkeys, and horses); wardrobe experts work until 3 a.m. mending and cleaning hundreds of costumes; a set manager assembles scores of props; an engineer maintains a device that hoists an actor 50 feet into the air during the scene of Christ’s Ascension; lighting artists devise special effects; and sound technicians carefully synchronize a prerecorded track with the onstage action so that few viewers realize the dialogue is not “live.”

“The local population is pegged at about 2,000, and most of them have either been in the play or have had relatives in the production at some point over the years,” Foster says.

Actors slip effortlessly into their roles as Jerusalem townspeople, usually taking the audience with them. The backdrop is as comfortable as the players’ backyards, and the characters onstage are as familiar as family and friends. A feeling of deja vu permeates the amphitheater within minutes of the opening processional. The hillside in Arkansas becomes the Holy Land, and 4,000 spectators make the transition to participants in the world’s greatest drama.

“This play is no typical theater production,” Sharon DeLano says. “It reminded me of everything I have read in the Bible. It was so real that I felt I was right there. For two hours I was living in those times.”

For more information, write The Great Passion Play, P.O. Box 471, Eureka Springs, Ark., 72632, or call 1-800-882-PLAY for ticket reservations. The 1993 season opens April 30 and concludes Oct. 30. For a complete listing of special attractions in the Eureka Springs area, contact the Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 551, Eureka Springs, Ark. 72632, or call 1-501-253-8737.

COPYRIGHT 1993 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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