From the moment pen was put to paper, Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi was bound to ruffle feathers. The play transposes the biblical story of Jesus and the Apostles to one of gay men living in latter-day Texas, a creative choice that predictably drew protests and condemnation from religious groups when it debuted in 1998.
The strong reaction had an impact on performances and perspectives alike. As a result, early productions of Corpus Christi didn't exactly earn a reputation for their subtlety. Focus tended to fall on the play's homosexual relationships between James and Bartholomew as well as Joshua — a contemporary proxy for Jesus — and Judas, which risked obscuring its exploration of themes like unconditional love for humankind.
As his own production of Corpus Christi prepares to open at Stage Left next weekend, delayed a week for health and safety issues, director Troy Nickerson is looking to present a more nuanced version of the play that honors those themes.
"When I first read the script, I felt like some of the more in-your-face stuff may have been done that way intentionally in the '90s. So I might have backed off from that because I didn't feel like it was necessary," he says.
"I'm not overtly sexualizing anything at all, although I'm not hiding from it in any way, either. There is the important relationship with Joshua and Judas. That certainly exists, and there is the intimacy that happens between them. But I don't feel the need to push any points. This is a story of 'what ifs.' If Jesus came back today, would we still have crucified and killed him for loving others?"
For Nickerson, that makes Corpus Christi's episodic tale of the Second Coming more about the fear and prejudices that cloud our judgment — or even elicit judgment in the first place. It also offers both religious and secular audiences an opportunity to reflect on what we mean when we talk about Christ-like compassion.
"As a gay man myself, I dislike the saying 'Hate the sins, love the sinner.' It's a way for people to still hate my lifestyle and judge me for it but pretend not to. This show is not saying that Jesus loves everyone in spite of all their horrible, horrible faults. He loves people because we should love people of all kinds. I hope that message is strong."
In an effort to mirror that sense of inclusivity, Nickerson broadened the audition process. Corpus Christi has typically been staged with an all-male cast, but more recent productions like this one have deliberately taken a more ecumenical approach.
"We have a very mixed cast — people who identify as he, she, they, them, gay and straight," Nickerson says. "And one of the loveliest parts about it has been seeing people who identify with different pronouns to all of a sudden have this space and this show that is for them. It's been really eye-opening for me, and the family that they have created amongst themselves has been a really special and beautiful thing to watch."
Playing the lead in this production is Rhead Shirley, whose recent acting credits include productions with Spokane Ensemble Theatre and Eastern Washington University.
"The play is wonderfully written, and it's really interesting in that it's the entire life of this character, Joshua, structured in these stylized vignettes," Shirley says. "We start at the birth, or the Nativity, then continue through high school and into adulthood. So one of the challenges for me as an actor was finding specific ways I can separate these periods in Joshua's life."
Another challenge was how best to approach the inevitable martyrdom of his character, which both Nickerson and Shirley agree is indispensable to the resonance of Corpus Christi.
"From the beginning, he knows that he's going to die," Shirley says. "It's an important part of the story because, instead of seeing the crucifixion as an indication that humanity is incapable of this unconditional love, it's that, despite this horrible end, Joshua, or Jesus, still wanted the best for them. We might be able to draw on that example to do the same thing."
That might be one reason why McNally, who died in 2020 of complications from COVID, expressly chose to open and close his play with the actors breaking the fourth wall and appealing directly to the audience. They try to connect on a personal level, making it clear that they've come to tell "an old and familiar story" with "no malice in [their] hearts."
And though Corpus Christi itself has historically come up against its own assumptions and prejudices, Shirley says that its core message remains a universal one that transcends race, religion, gender and sexual orientation.
"There's a line when Joshua first meets Judas. He says, 'I like boys. I like girls, too. I like people.' And I think that's what it's really all about. Beneath everything else, it's the person who should be loved." ♦
Corpus Christi • Jan. 21-Feb. 6 • Thu to Sat at 7 pm; Sun at 2 pm • $25 • Stage Left Theater • 108 W. Third Ave. • stagelefttheater.org • 509-838-9727