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'John' is more than a theatrical event for the Atlanta actor who will bring biblical characters to life off-Broadway

THEATER FEATURE: Thursday, March 13, 2003

By Kathy Janich

Mark Twain slept there. Frank Sinatra drank there. Tonight Atlanta actor Brad Sherrill begins a six-week run of "The Gospel of John" there.

We're talking off-Broadway's Lamb's Theatre, a turn-of -the-century jewel -- full of dark wood and history -- on West 44th Street in New York's theater district. Bernadette Peters' "Gypsy" will soon move in down the block. At the Belasco across the way, the romantic "Enchanted April" is working towards its first preview. Virgil's Bar B Que and the almonds roasting on unbiquitous street carts perfume this typical midtown stretch as helicopters chop through the air over Times Square.

Sherrill's journey with "John" began more than four years ago when the idea of dramatizing the 20,000-word Gospel first pestered him.

His trek to New York -- the Holy Grail for theater actors of any, all or no religious persuasion -- began much earlier.

His mom, Carolyn Sherrill, says at 4, Brad would stand of the TV set and mimic any commercial that caught his fancy. At 11, he joined the drama group at First United Methodist Church in Chamblee. At 20, he got his first professional job at Atlanta's old Academy Theatre (alongside such stalwarts-to-be as Rosemary Newcott, Chris Kayser and Kenny Leon).

Sherrill, now 40, has played "John" more than 170 times in the past two years, testing it in churches before staging it at Marietta's Theatre in the Square in January 2001.

He's done it coast to coast since then, from the Yale Divinity School to the Mississippi Delta, from the small H Street Playhouse in a marginal Washington neighborhood, to San Francisco Bay and "tiny South Georgia towns."

He's done it for audiences of a thousand ("too big") and an audience of two --both theater critics ("They liked it, but I hope I never have to do that again").

He prefers stages that resemble expanded living rooms "where this thing really comes alive." For this dream run co-produced by New Yorkers Nancy Nagel Gibbs and Carolyn Rossi Copeland, he'll have 99 cozy seats.

Sherrill and "John" director Scott Cowart, 27, got to Gotham on Sunday and have spent nine or so hours each day since then getting technical: setting lights and sound, rehearsing cues, getting comfortable in the space they'll fill for 42 shows in 42 days.

They'll do one fewer show per week than most Broadway and off-Broadway productions, but "for a one-person thing, seven seems enough," Sherrill says.

An understatement, perhaps. Sherrill is the cast of this two-hour, 20-minute drama featuring Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, Pontius Pilate and many more biblical beings.

He'll be off Thursdays -- tonight's an exception -- time he'll pass resting body and voice, reading, seeing friends and theater, and schlepping out to Long Island with rod and reel. Like the apostle John, this "Gospel's" author, the actor is a fisherman.

"Part of me says this off-Broadway run is just another stop on the tour," Sherrill has said. "The actor part of me is really thrilled that it's going to be in New York."

-------------------Atlanta actor Brad Sherrill first thought about dramatizing the Gospel of John in early 1999 --- about 16 years after he hogged the stage as Bill the Pig in the children's play "The Pig Tale" at the old Academy Theatre.

Both roles have a bit of ham in them.

In "The Gospel of John," opening Tuesday at Marietta's Theatre in the Square, Sherrill is the entire cast. He commands the stage for almost two hours, using only his voice and body and a few props --- a rustic table, a chair, an oil lamp, a basin of water, a bucket of rocks ("How else do you stone the adulteress?") --- to tell a story that moves him and, he hopes, will touch others.

The evangelist's words resonate with Sherrill, who says the Bible's fourth Gospel has been "whispering" at him for some time, that it "wouldn't leave me alone," that he's "on fire about it."

"It's a compelling story," the actor says, his brown eyes narrowing and beaming with purpose as he discusses the 2,000-year-old text. "Regardless of your beliefs, it is the most compelling story. A man came to Earth and lived very quietly until about the age of 29, and then he said he was God's son. He performed miracles. And the political climate was such that he was put to death because he was a rebel.

"John seems to be after something bigger, which he later says, is that you will know Christ and by knowing him you will have life in him. It's the only Gospel that presents Christ as God, which is still a pretty bizarre notion to try to wrap your brain around: 'He is the son of God, but he is also God on Earth.'"

Sherrill's "Gospel" isn't theater like you usually see it. Doing work straight from the Bible isn't unheard of, but it's rare. Atlanta actor Tom Key did a staged reading of John's Book of Revelation in 1986. British actor Alec McCowen performed "St. Mark's Gospel" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including a limited run on Broadway.

With Sherrill's "Gospel of John," there is little set and minimal lighting or costumes (he'll probably wear jeans and a casual shirt). There's no script, just the 20,000 or so words that make up the Gospel, the one written by Jesus' apostle named John, the one people usually find the most poetic, the most moving and the most accessible. Sherrill has memorized every one of those 20,000 words --- it took 4 1/2 months to get them into his head, and they require a daily refresher course to stay there --- but he'll keep a Bible handy, just in case.

"I know it's demanding of an audience," says Sherrill, who, as was John, is a fisherman. "I think even the best of us have a hard time listening to one voice for two hours. But I think if people hear just 60 percent of what I'm saying, really hear it, the evening has a cumulative effect that is powerful."

Sherrill will be performing in T-Square's smaller space, the 120-seat Alley Stage, on which, explains producing director Palmer Wells, the theater is trying to do "edgier" works.

"Return to Morality" by Jamie Pachino, the first show in the Alley space this season, dealt with evil and corruption in the publishing and political worlds. "Bash" by playwright-filmmaker Neil LaBute ("In the Company of Men," "Nurse Betty"), which opens in April, consists of three offbeat, pit-of-the stomach stories about good and evil in the lives of four people.

"We're doing them with pretty much austere staging," Wells says, "concentrating more on the actors' ability to make words come alive."

That's how Sherrill's piece, which Wells first saw in November at Brookhaven Christian Church, fits in. It's all about the words and the actor, without the usual trappings of theater.

But will it draw an audience? Wells thinks so.

"Obviously, this will have an appeal to people of faith, and I expect that," he says, "but I think that he does it so creatively and so well that it's more than just a piece for those of religious faith. The fact that it appealed to me was justification enough for me, because I was actually a little skeptical when I went to see it. And I heard from other theater people who felt the same way.

"Early sales have come from church-based organizations," Wells continues, "but I think that once people see it and talk about it, we're going to get others."

Sherrill sees his audience as "people who think they may be interested in the Bible. People who are interested in seeing good theater and trying to see if one guy can do it.

"I'm not just doing this for believers," he says.

Wells, meanwhile, does see the irony in his theater doing a "religious" play. It no doubt will appeal to members of the ''religious right,'' some of the very same people who launched the Cobb County arts de-funding movement after T-Square's 1993 staging of "Lips Together, Teeth Apart," which contained references to homosexuality. But, he says, it's a coincidence.

" 'John,' " Wells adds, "has considerable merit as a piece of theater. It really is a credit to (Sherrill's) ability, I think, that he can make it as interesting as it is. I was fascinated by the entire thing."

Richard Garner, producing artistic director at the Georgia Shakespeare Festival, where Sherrill has worked for 12 seasons, says, "He is so completely comfortable and at ease with it that you think, 'That's not Brad there; he's John.' And that's the mark of a good actor.

"Brad is a very passionate actor. Sometimes that comes out in fiery passion, if that's right for the role, or sometimes it comes out in an under-the-surface thing. He's been very passionate about this John project. He is so connected to this piece, I saw a side of him I never saw before."

Sherrill, 38, has been acting professionally since 1983. Bill the Pig was one of his earlier roles. He's been seen at the Alliance Theatre as well as the GSF, the Horizon Theatre, 7 Stages and Actor's Express. You may have seen him as Scrooge's good-humored nephew in "A Christmas Carol"; as the testosterone-powered Mercutio in "Romeo and Juliet"; as Heidi's best friend, the gay physician, in "The Heidi Chronicles"; or, perhaps most famously, as the rakish doctor named Cameron in "Rescue & Recovery."

Sherrill, who's known for his ability to handle almost any role but has never before taken on a
"religious" character, says he might not even be an actor if it weren't for the church.

"I began acting at the church I still go to (First United Methodist in Chamblee) when I was 11. I know that, had I not been raised in that community and introduced to theater at that early an age, I might not be an actor. So this is something of giving back.

Like many others, Sherrill says, he drifted away from the church in his 20s and began drifting back sometime in his 30s. He has other reasons for doing "John," too.

"I wanted something that I could take to people regardless of their socioeconomic status," he says. "I see what the majority of the audiences I play to are like: folks with money. Gone are the days when the theater was truly the people's art form. This had begun to bother me. I wanted to create something that would afford me a living but also enable me to take the work to audiences that I wouldn't reach if I only acted at the Alliance, Georgia Shakes, Horizon, Theatre in the Square."

Sherrill says "The Gospel of John" found him, not vice versa.

"I feel that I was called to do something sacred, biblical. At the point I am in my career, it seemed like a natural leap to take on something that was a huge challenge. Even though I was raised Christian, grew up in the Methodist Church, my challenge was not to convert or proselytize but just to bring a sacred old, old, old book to life.

"I can't really put into words what makes it compelling," he continues, "except that it's survived for 2,000 years. And when you read it, Christ is basically a really great human being. In literature, you can't find a really interesting good person."