Following a somewhat rocky dress-rehearsal, Last Supper director Erich Dorzab told the Last Days of Jesus cast, “even if it’s not in the script, the Holy Spirit will give you the words to say.”
As the Last Days of Jesus pageant celebrates its 40th anniversary, the cast and crew reflect on how the four-day pageant depicting the last week of Jesus’ life has impacted their own lives in remarkable ways.
“We’ve had a lot of great people who have been part of this for the last 40 years,” said Joyce Goodman, who directs the Trial and Crucifixion scenes. “The relationships you get, it’s like family, everyone getting together,” she said.
It helps that a large portion of the cast and crew are already family before they get on set. Richard Durham and his wife, Crystal, have been making the 40-mile drive from Husum with their three kids to take part in the pageant for the last few years because “it’s such an awesome ministry,” Richard said.
This year, Richard is excited to be playing Judas, while Crystal is helping with costumes and two of their three kids (the third is leaving on a missionary trip and so can’t take part) are acting in smaller roles. The distance and commitment are worth it, Crystal says, to participate in this ministry and to give her children a learning experience unlike any other.
“It’s a real family thing for a lot of people,” said Marilyn Miller, director of the Resurrection.
The Last Days of Jesus pageant began as George Sargeant and Linda Cosgrave-Ashbrook’s high school Sunday School project in 1979 and has since grown into a beloved local tradition.
It consists of five major scenes spread across four days: The Last Supper, which starts 7 p.m. on Thursday March 29 in The Dalles High School auditorium; Gethsemane/The Arrest immediately following at City Park; the Trial on the courthouse steps on Friday March 30 at 7 p.m.; the Crucifixion and Burial immediately following at First Christian Church; and the Resurrection in the parking lot behind First Christian on Sunday, April 1 at 8 a.m. Pairs of Roman Guards take shifts guarding the tomb from the end of the burial scene to the beginning of the Resurrection, a total of nearly 36 hours.
Four different directors are each responsible for a scene, except for Goodman, who is directing two.
Though the pageant’s directors all work largely independent of each other, they still produce a cohesive performance as the script they share is a direct compilation of the four Gospels focused on historical and biblical accuracy. The lamb Passover meal that is prepared for the Last Supper is just one testament to the Last Day’s team’s devotion to bringing people directly into these biblical scenes.
So, they are all very grateful that Jesus won’t be wearing a modern-day ankle brace, as they feared when actor Colin Smith sprained his ankle. Smith, who is playing Jesus for the first time, has had a lot of tribulation try to come between him and the pageant—from difficulty getting vacation time to a sprained ankle and a situation where his son ended up in the emergency room. While he talked about it, Sarah Pickette said that the devil does his best to stop good work from being done, to which Smith answered, “you’ve got to claim authority.”
This year marks Smith’s fourth with Last Days. He and his wife have lived in a blue house right by First Christian since they were married 15 years ago and he thought about joining the pageant, but didn’t know how, until Marilyn Miller approached him four years ago and asked him to play Barabas. He played a Roman Guard for the next three years and initially thought he’d be playing the same role again this year — until Miller announced that he was going to play Jesus. Smith was open to the role, and “it felt right,” he said. He will be wrapping his sprained ankle in athletic tape, he said, so hopefully it will look like rags and won’t be too out of place.
Despite early anxiety that the pageant will never come together in time, “it comes together every year,” Miller said. “It’s just like God blesses it every year.”
Over 15 churches have participated in Last Days through its history in various ways: providing actors, donations and volunteers to help behind the scenes.
For many years, it has been a part of First Christian Church. However, as of October 2017, the pageant is now its own incorporated non-profit — which brings blessings as well as some strife, said Miller.
The board, consisting of six to eight members, including the four scene directors, the actor playing Jesus and several other key players, has had to adjust to managing every part of the pageant’s process but overall, Miller said, the shift has been worth it.
Miller has been involved with Last Days since 2005 but — like many other participants — has been connected to the pageant for a lot longer. Miller distinctly remembers seeing the pageant for the first time in 1997 and thinking how she’d like to be involved in it someday.
Sound technician Tim Vergori also dreamed of taking part in the Last Days of Jesus pageant after seeing it for the first time. He fell in love with the story after first seeing it as a child and converted to Christianity when he was 12 years old.
Even during his 13 years in the Air Force, Vergori used his time on leave to come back home to The Dalles with his family to witness the pageant. “It is the greatest story ever told,” he said of the Gospels.
The pageant has also been a connecting force in his family. His late father, Renato, played the apostle Matthew in the late 1990’s and this year, his brother-in-law is playing the same role.
The biggest way Last Days has impacted Vergori was through his son, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor several years ago, at age eight. In the Air Force at the time, Vergori was sent back to The Dalles on humanitarian leave and was grateful to be able to bring his son to the Last Days pageant once before he died.
During the resurrection scene, the actor playing Jesus came up to Vergori’s son, in his wheelchair near the front of the crowd, and held his palms out to him — an act that was meant to show the nail marks in Jesus’ hands.
To see his son’s experience, “it just does something to a father’s heart,” Vergori said. “I know my son knew what Jesus was all about, and I know I’ll see him again.”
Many of Last Days’ participants have testified to the powerful effect participating in the pageant has had on their lives. Gethsemane/Arrest director Roger Alford said that he became a Christian after first watching the scene he is now directing. “We’re doing what Jesus told his disciples to do: we’re telling his story,” he said.
Vergori and Alford’s stories are just a couple of many among this year’s cast and crew. Another comes from Mackenzie McGinnis, who got involved in Last Days to connect with her new community after moving to The Dalles four years ago.
She was asked to play Mary Magdalene, and has played the same role every year since. It also happened to be her first year in recovery after struggling with addiction for 16 years.
“It [addiction and recovery] has been a trial, and Jesus, he forgives us,” she said.
Beyond the aunt and uncle who first introduced her to Christianity, McGinnis’ family is not religious, and her father, in particular, had difficulty understanding McGinnis’ newfound commitment.
But her father came to support her as the entire production walked from the Last Supper scene at The Dalles High School to the Garden of Gethsemane scene at City Park.
During that walk, McGinnis said, her father came to accept Christ and McGinnis’ relationship with Him.
This year, she’s hoping her 19-year-old son will “join me in the walk as well,” she said.