Narroway Theater’s Jesus stays in character off the stage

joverman@fortmilltimes.comOctober 21, 2012 

— A chance meeting at a gas station took John Phillips from ordinary father and husband to the extraordinary role of “Jesus.”

While pumping gas one day more than 15 years ago, Phillips ran into a friend who told him about a new group in town seeking actors to perform in Christian-themed dramas. Phillips, who has four sons, thought it would be a good way to get the children involved in an extracurricular activity, and so he found himself at one of Narroway Christian Theater’s first auditions.

He snagged the role of a disciple. A year later, he was upgraded to portraying the son of God. He’s been playing Jesus in Narroway productions ever since.

The theater company has several casts for each of the half-dozen or so shows it produces annually, so Phillips typically took the stage every other weekend. But recently, the other man who portrays Jesus has been helping an ailing family member. Phillips volunteered to pull double-duty. He has played Jesus for at least three performances every weekend and occasional weekdays for the last two months.

“He had to be here every single show and every rehearsal. It’s a huge commitment,” said Cheryl Lipian, Narroway spokesperson. “It’s not out of character for John, because he’s very self-giving, but it makes you stand in awe of someone doing that.”

With his long hair and long beard, Phillips needs to only put on his robes to complete the transformation from regular guy to Jesus.

It’s not enough just to portray Jesus on the stage, Phillips said. When he’s in the grocery store or out with his family, children often point to him in surprise and ask their parents why Jesus is out wandering around town. He feels a responsibility to play the part whenever he is out of the house.

“It’s not just every weekend, it’s every day and all day,” he said. “What would it be like to see the production, to hear that story and believe it, and then go the next day to Food Lion and there goes Jesus across the parking lot smoking a cigarette. You have to live it, 24-7.”

But Phillips is quick to point out the differences between himself and Jesus. For starters, he’s not a carpenter; he owns a water purification company.

And no, “I don’t turn water into wine,” he said.

Lipian, however, talks about how Phillips’ character traits would make Jesus proud.

“He takes the role to heart and tries to be an example of what Christ would be and by what he did, laying his schedule and life down for the show. He really portrayed it in his life. It’s not just his words, it’s his life and his actions,” Lipian said.

Phillips, a long-time volunteer sports coach, said he’s more comfortable on a ball field than a stage, but he enjoys being part of a family-friendly activity and spreading a Christian message.

“I almost backed out of it. Give me a baseball bat or a football in front of a million people and I’m fine” he said, “but make me say something and I get nervous.”

After 15 years and hundreds of performances, Phillips still gets nervous.

“It scares me, big time,” he said.

Narroway productions help show the audience Bible stories aren’t just stories, he said.

“Just like you hug me after the show, you could’ve hugged Jesus because he was real. He was flesh,” Phillips says to audience members after a show. “It’s pretty awesome.”

In a few weeks, Phillips will go back to being Jesus every other weekend. It’s been tiring to perform the duties every week, Phillips said, but “the blessings you receive far outweigh the hardship,” he said.

He remembers years ago when his children were in high school. It was a Friday night and the Narroway cast were gathered backstage. The group bowed their heads to pray before curtain time. Phillips took a quick look around the room.

“There sat my boys. It’s a Friday night and Lord knows what other boys are doing but on a Friday night, mine were right there with me at Narroway,” he said.

His children, and even his grandchildren, are still involved in Narroway productions.

No matter how tired Phillips is, he becomes energized when the show starts.

“It’s the Holy Spirit,” he said.

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