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