WAUCHULA -- When Cody Rawls, 22, and Randall Whaley, 29, see each other on the street in Hardee County, there is a instant connection that goes beyond just their friendship.
The two, and perhaps 500 others, say they have a wordless bond that comes from being past or present cast members of the play, "The Story of Jesus."
The play was written 26 years ago by the Rev. Mike Graham of Real Life Church in Wauchula. The piece tells the story of Christ from infancy to his teaching, his gathering of faithful disciples and, finally, to his crucifixion and resurrection. The show has been steadily performed around Easter-time under Graham's direction at the 1,600-seat Cattleman Arena.
Hundreds of actors in period costume see their annual roles as an honor, Rawls and Whaley said.
"People crack jokes about getting to play Jesus," Rawls said. "Actually, everyone that is in the play takes it very seriously. We do this for ourselves and our glory is from honoring God. Every part gets earned and tried out for. If you deserve a part, you will get it."
Graham is one of seven who portray Jesus. Horses, camels, chickens, a donkey and other livestock co-star.
There are Broadway-like special effects, like Jesus walking on water, children portraying angels flying around the arena in harnesses, 2,000-year-old weather manufactured by fog and rain machines, and, in a realistic but not gruesome depiction, the scourging and crucifixion of Christ.
The show opened its 26th season Friday and continues at 7:30 p.m. today at 507 Civic Center Dr., Wauchula. Its entire run is 10 shows, or Friday and Saturday for five consecutive weekends.
Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for children age 3 to 12, $18 for seniors older than 62, and $18 each
for groups of more than 25.
Children younger than 3 can enter free but must sit on laps to conserve space.
Tickets can be purchased by visiting the website, www.storyofjesus.com or calling 863-375-4031.
"Being in it so long, all these people become your second family," said Rawls, who is heading into his 17th year as a cast member and this year plays a king carrier, a member of the Sanhedrin, and Barabbas, who was freed at the Passover feast by Pontius Pilate and Jairus, whose daughter was healed by Jesus. "Everyone becomes so close. You might not see one of the cast members from the end of the show to the first practice in January, but when you do it's like you saw them yesterday."
"When it's over you find yourself missing everyone and bored on the weekends and you want to get back to it," said Whaley, a bridge inspector who plays Jesus getting scourged and has come home with welts during rehearsals. "When that time comes around it makes everything else seem worthless. Everyday troubles seem small. What we are doing is what it's all about."
Like a factory
For Rawls and Whaley, thousands of moving parts fit together starting at 7:30 p.m. on show nights to make a powerful emotional statement.
Somehow, despite many things that could go wrong, not much does, Whaley said.
"I come floating in on a pulley system using a motorized winch," Whaley said of his scene as Jesus walking on water. "The winch puts me three or four feet off the ground."
Rawls lives in Zolfo Springs. He graduated from Hardee Senior High in Wauchula. His brothers and mother were in the show years ago. He is the only one left performing in it.
"My personal opinion is that every play done like ours sends out a different message but they all are the same story," Rawls said.
"I think ours is very powerful and very realistic, and there is not another one like ours. When you see the scourging and crucifixion scene in our show it's hard to imagine more raw emotion."
"The audience is usually in awe that it's so real," Whaley said. "It makes you think you are back in that time. The arena floor is dirt, not some nice big auditorium. We make everything look like stone. We have the Jordan River. We baptize people after the show in our Jordan River. It's absolutely amazing."
This year, the cast and crew of "The Jesus Story" expect a new feature, the 15-minute "Picture of Freedom" pre-show, which honors America's men and women in uniform, to even eclipse Jesus's water walk in goose bumps per square inch.
"It's a tribute to America," Whaley said. "It covers the history of America. It's really powerful."
Graham, who also wrote "The Story of Noah," which replaced "The Story ofJesus" for last year's season, wrote "Picture of Free-dom" to reintroduce people to their nation, Whaley said.
"The message is, 'America is here and not going away,'" said Whaley, who plays a Civil War soldier.
"The show includes about a dozen scenes from American history. The performers act out the scene and freeze, like a picture frozen in time."
"It's really powerful," Rawls said. "It's like, 'America is back.'"
"You have to see it," Whaley said. "It's amazing. About 80 percent of the cast from 'The Story of Jesus' are in the pre-show and, at the end, people cover the stage in American flags. We expect the audience to go crazy and we want them to. We want them to get riled out. It's all performed to "The Star-Spangled Banner."