Ken Jennings’ one-man play “The Gospel of John” evokes a sense of what it must have been like to hear the story of Christ told in the earliest days of Christianity. Imagine crossing paths with an Apostle who is on fire to proclaim the Good News in the aftermath of Christ’s Resurrection. Jennings has fully imagined and attempted to recreate this experience in a riveting presentation playing at the Sheen Center throughout December.
Jennings is best known for being the first actor to portray the character of Tobias Ragg in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a role for which he won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Musical. Since that breakout performance in the early days of his career, Jennings has appeared in many high-profile productions, including “Grand Hotel” and “A Christmas Carol.” But in some ways it seems like his entire career has been building towards this moment of taking the stage as a veteran actor in this deeply personal play.
Jennings grew up with a love of stories—his father was a great storyteller and his mother was a librarian who taught him to appreciate the written word. He studied at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City, N.J., and then earned a scholarship in drama to nearby St. Peter’s College, where he experienced an immersion in the Gospel of John in the classroom of a legendary Jesuit priest.
Recalling that time, Jennings says, “The priest who taught us Johannine scripture at St. Peter’s College was Father John Corridan, and I always heard at St. Peter’s that Father Corridan was the waterfront priest who inspired Karl Malden’s character in ‘On the Waterfront.’ Budd Schulberg, who wrote ‘On the Waterfront,’ confirmed that Father Corridan was the inspiration for that character. Schulberg said that the homily delivered by Malden in the hold of that ship was in fact a homily Father Corridan delivered in real life.”
Years after his dramatic stand against organized crime, Father Corridan became known for his ability to inspire students on an intellectual level in his role as a teacher of Johannine scripture, and this helped Jennings cultivate an interest in the Gospel of John that would remain with him throughout his life.
“The Gospel of John was always one of my favorites,” Jennings says. “I didn’t memorize it back then, but there were parts of it that I became very familiar with. I remember being amazed by the four chapters dealing with the Last Supper. I had my little pocket Bible, which is the one I carry with me in my performances today. I bought that little Bible when I was doing Sweeney Todd, and I’d even carry it with me when I went jogging, and I would often walk back from my jog reading the Scripture.”
Jennings recalls being particularly struck one day by a passage in the 20th chapter of John that reads, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” This passage spoke so powerfully to Jennings that he felt the “you” written in two separate places was addressing him personally.
Later, during a period of turmoil in his life, Jennings began to memorize John’s Gospel, not as a performance piece but as a prayer. He went incrementally, one chapter at a time, but as he got further along in the process of memorization, he began to see it as something that could be shared with others. That was when he developed the idea to recreate the experience of hearing the Gospel as it would have been told by John himself in the early days of Christianity.
It is in this vein that Jennings takes the stage at the Sheen Center’s Black Box Theater, an intimate setting perfect for the experience. Occasional background sound and lighting changes help to set the various scenes as Jennings moves through John’s highly poetic account of the life of Christ. But even with these well-handled special effects that draw the audience into the moment, the power of the presentation rests entirely on Jennings’ performance, which seems to flow effortlessly from casual discourse through scenes of intense animation and ultimately to a thunderclap of conflict that refuses all but the most complex of solutions.
While everyone knows it is the denouement that provides the true reward in this story, Jennings manages to make those final vignettes seem like a revelation. He does this by bringing the characters to life through his own unique and sensitive understanding of how the hopes and fears of Jesus’ disciples reached a critical point in the aftermath of his death and resurrection. At one moment, he plays Christ on the beach beckoning Peter and a few of the disciples to cast their net for a catch unlike any they had known before. At another moment, he turns Thomas’ question into an anguished cry to know the truth, capturing the frustration that lies at the heart of doubt.
In the end, this play is a lens through which to see how John’s closeness to Christ breathes life into his Gospel, and Jennings’ effortless stagecraft transforms this narrative into a journey that invites the audience to engage with John’s writings as a way to enjoy that same brotherhood with Christ.
Reflecting on the path that has brought him to this moment and the personal fulfillment this project brings to his life, Jennings says, “I’ve been in theater all my life, and those huge projects I’ve been a part of can certainly dominate one’s life, even sometimes destructively, because they can be so dominant. But this one cannot do that. This one is a prayer. This one is a prayer that flows around life. This one, by its very nature, must bring peace.”