They come from all parts of the Valley — 475 men, women, teens and children — and spend countless hours in practice and performances during the month leading up to Easter. The goal: presenting to the community the story of the life and mission of Jesus Christ in music, drama and dance.
Along with nearly 500 cast members, an additional 400 work as part of the crew to present the Mesa Easter Pageant, a 75-year-old tradition of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
According to director, Jenee Wright Prince, each participant plays a vital role in the production, which gets underway this week.
In the mix are those who portray the followers of Jesus Christ, while others are cast in “bad guy” roles. Among them are the Sadducees, including one who is playing that role for the fourth time this year.
Mark Bayless, a Cave Creek resident who’s makes the drive to Mesa countless times this month, said to be one of those who mock the Savior and turn their back on him is difficult.
“I remember the first time I had to spit on the Savior. An overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me. I left heavy-hearted and wondered, ‘How can I do that night after night to the Savior that I love?’”
But, Bayless said, as part of the finale, “I get to stand and join with the rest of the cast to sing, ‘I Know He Lives,’ ... It counterbalances everything.”
Another Sadducee, Richard Garcia, of Mesa, agreed.
“It’s not in my character to be one of the ‘bad guys,’” he said, “but I love being a part of the pageant and joining with the other cast members who all have one goal, which is to present the pageant in a way that will testify of the Savior.”
Shannon Jones, while cast as “the adulteress,” believes she has one of the best parts. She explained that she is dragged on the stage by the Sadducees and Pharisees each night and is thrown down on the stage, while the men point at her and yell.
Then, she said, “Christ reaches down, takes my hand and lifts me up and says, ‘Go thy way and sin no more.’”
Jones said, “It hits home and makes me realize that, while I’m not exactly like that woman, we all need to be forgiven.”
Perhaps as difficult as portraying a “bad guy,” is having to play the role of Jesus Christ.
Robert Allen of Queen Creek did that for six years before taking two years off. He has returned to play Peter this year. His wife, Norine, and their five children also have participated in the pageant over the years.
“We all get to testify of Him, regardless of whose sandals you wear,” Allen said.
Allen, who runs a junk disposal company called The Garbage Guy, added that the pageant gives him and his family a chance to “sort of declutter your life for a while. Your mind, body and everything seems more peaceful.”
While it does require a great deal of time and effort, “we have never felt that we have lost out. We always find we get back at least as much and usually double what we put forth,” Allen said.
Tyler Maxson, of Mesa, will appear in the role of Christ again for the fourth year.
“It has awoken me to a whole new understanding of the love of our Heavenly Father and the love our Savior has for each of us,” Maxson said.
His wife, Linsey, and two of their children, Cole, 8, and Bowen, 4, will be part of the cast as well.
While many don authentic-looking costumes and portray characters on stage, others contribute behind the scenes. Melanie Conway, who has been a “wiseman follower” for 13 years, has helped for a total of 17 years. She’s done minor refurbishing and decorating of the stage, and arranges for the plants and trees each year.
Along with several silk plants, nearly a truckload of live plants are brought each year.
“We usually have 16 or 17 queen palms, 26 small, pygmy palms and 60 to 80 small plants — a few ferns, grasses and extra flowers,” Conway said.
Skyline Nursery of Queen Creek had donated the plants for several years. However, because they have gone out of business, nearby Desert Horizon Nursery, also of Queen Creek, volunteered to contribute this year.
The pageant also is a tradition for the family of Loran and Marilyn Webb, of Mesa. While they haven’t been on stage, the production could hardly go on without them. The Webbs, with their six children and 17 grandchildren, come together several days before Easter to create the “miracle of the chairs.” For almost 30 years, Webb has overseen the massive delivery and placement effort of some 10,000 folding chairs. The chairs, from various Latter-day Saint church buildings in the area, are delivered at a designated time. Once they arrive, the Webb family goes into action, spending about six hours to set them up.
Marilyn Webb said the family treasures the experience.
“There’s no greater service that we can do every year than to make it possible for the nearly 100,000 visitors to see the pageant,” she said.
For the past six years, Steve Porter and his wife, Liz, of East Mesa, also have worked behind the scenes — he as the backstage and large props manager, she as the small props manager. Those somewhat innocent-sounding titles represent mammoth responsibilities and intricate logistics; the duo is responsible for getting props in place and carried onstage by the 475 cast members. They also work to get the movable scenery for the 32 different scenes on and off stage quickly and efficiently.
Small props that various cast members carry include whips and ropes for the mob scene, flower baskets, palm fronds and the items the merchants carry in the scene of Christ cleansing the temple.
“Quite a lot of organization has to go into making sure the props are where they need to be,” Porter said.
He and his team of seven move the large, rolling props that change the stage into everything from the Garden of Eden, to the manger scene, the Last Supper and the site of the crucifixion with three huge crosses.
While it may appear to be “grunt work,” Porter said it is much more than that for him.
“We are putting on a show, and it’s nowhere near what Christ did when he was here, and, yet, it inspires people to be better, to be more Christlike and less worldly — those kinds of things.”
He added, “Artistic presentation speaks to people’s souls. It is one of the tools the Lord uses to help people learn of him and to have a desire to rise above themselves and make a difference in the world.”
“The pageant is a marvelous experience that makes us all want to be better,” Porter said.
What: “Jesus the Christ” Mesa Easter Pageant
When: Performances begin at 8 p.m. March 20 and 21 and March 26-30. Spanish performances are March 22 and 23. The pageant will be presented in ASL March 20-23.
Where: North lawn of the Mesa Arizona Temple Visitors’ Center, 525 E. Main St.
Information: (480) 964-7164 or easterpageant.org
Photo: The 2013 Mesa Arizona Easter Pageant "Jesus the Christ" performed Thursday, March 14, 2013 on the grounds of the Mesa Mormon Temple. [Tim Hacker/ Tribune]