To be more precise, it’s Robert Twaddell who’s afraid of heights. He’s the 25-year-old actor hired to portray Jesus at “The Promise,” now showing at a massive amphitheater about 75 miles southwest of Dallas.
Near the end of the musical, Twaddell is hoisted high on a large wooden cross, then lifted above the stage in a harness as he ascends heavenward. Problematic for the acrophobic.
“Heard of butterflies in your stomach? I get pterodactyls,” the Glen Rose, Texas, man said.
“The Promise” features a cast of around 90 actors, a few sheep, a couple doves, three goats, a donkey named Odie, a horse named Rug and a camel named Moses. It attracts actors from Dallas and Fort Worth who come back year after year to be a part of the cast.
The play tells the story of Christ, from Nativity through Resurrection. It’s been a Glen Rose staple for 30 years, since the 32,000-seat amphitheater first opened here.
Around 1986, a group of investors wanted to bring a production about the life of Christ to Somervell County, and raised the original funds for the play. The county constructed the huge amphitheater with this and other productions in mind, but “The Promise” is the only thing that has stuck.
The production is a non-profit supported primarily by ticket sales. Proceeds go to keeping the lights on, small stipends for the cast and crew, and donations to a handful of religious and secular charities.
This is Twaddell’s fifth season with the show, but his first in the starring role.
Each Friday and Saturday night through the first weekend in November, Twaddell must sing and act in nearly every scene of the more than two-hour musical — not to mention walk on water, heal the sick, and battle with Satan in the desert.
But it’s the show’s final scene that makes Twaddell anxious.
“You wanna know the worst part of ‘The Promise’ ” Twaddell said. “The Ascension and walking on the catwalk.”
But each night, Twaddell says he faces his fears through faith. Each performance is prayer, an act of worship.
“It’s the best way I know how to praise God,” he said.
Prayer through performance
Before each performance, Twaddell goes through a series of vocal and physical warm-ups. The last actor who played Jesus had his own trailer, Twaddell said, but now a utility closet backstage serves as Christ’s dressing room.
He already has the long, wiry hair, full beard and bright blue eyes that make him look like the common Western depiction of Jesus. Twaddell’s well-worn “Holy Land Market Camel” sandals, made in Israel, are part of his everyday wardrobe.
At the final rehearsal before opening night, all it takes is a bit of stage makeup, a white robe and a Jewish tallit shawl. He’s ready.
The Ascension harness won’t come until later, after the Crucifixion.
In the first act of “The Promise,” Twaddell-as-Jesus delivers portions of the Sermon on the Mount. He pauses and moves forward to kneel and pray. As he does, his disciple John asks how they should pray.
Jesus thinks for a moment.
“Our Father,” he begins, “which art in heaven.”
After Twaddell speaks each line of the Lord’s Prayer, the cast sings along, slowly building momentum. The pace gives Twaddell a moment for his own prayer. He concentrates on each phrase, speaking them not only to the audience, but also to God.
“I’m constantly praying,” he said. “This whole show is an act of worship.”
Twaddell said playing the Son of God comes with its own set of challenges. He said he’s struggled with how to portray a divine man while making the character relatable to the audience.
“I have to bridge that gap between his holiness and my mortality,” he said. “I’m going to fall short of the glory.”
Long before he was cast as Christ, Twaddell says he was using the stage as an expression of his faith.
He says if he can develop a character in a way that lets both actor and audience develop an emotional connection, surely he can know how to love his neighbor.
“You end up loving people you wouldn’t otherwise love,” he said. “That has allowed me to understand Christ more.”
Christ’s costume change
At intermission, the cast hurries backstage. Twaddell has another costume change.
“I have to put a diaper on,” he says, “for the Crucifixion.”
But before he gets to the dressing room, other actors stop him. Some just want to say good job so far. Others have questions about choreography or other stage directions. “Cross coming through!” someone shouts as the big crucifix is carried through the narrow hallway.
Then, there’s the harness.
There will be little time between when Twaddell is taken off the cross to when he needs to be back in the tomb, ready to be hoisted aloft.
Backstage, he talks through the quick costume change with his wife, Haley Twaddell, who plays Mary in the early Nativity scenes.
“Do you keep your bloody loincloth on?” she asks.
“You hand me a towel, I’ll wipe the blood off my front, someone will wipe blood off my back,” Twaddell says. “I can do it. I can do it,” he said, as much to himself as his wife.
David Culp, who leads the show’s technical crew, arrives to give Twaddell some last-minute advice on the walking-on-water effect for the big finale.
“You’re walking on water tonight?” Haley asks.
He hasn’t tried it before.
“Yeah, I’m walking on water tonight,” he says before darting into the dressing room to throw on the Crucifixion undergarments.
Culp and Haley exchange looks. They can tell he’s nervous. Culp says that once, when Twaddell was rehearsing as an understudy for the role of Jesus, the cable frayed and snapped, leaving the young actor dangling in midair until he could be lowered back to earth.
“He’s not an experienced flier,” Culp says. “He’s getting there though.”
After he was crucified, dead and buried on stage, Twaddell waits in the tomb. The room is pitch-black, but he can smell the stage fog that has filled the closet-like space.
The stage blood has been washed away. The harness is in place under his bright white robes. Outside, he can hear the first bars of “Forever,” a modern worship song sung by the actors who play women who come to see the tomb of Jesus.
It’s there, in the fog-filled tomb, that it hits Twaddell.
The fear of flying is gone.
He can’t describe it, then or later, but the fear has been replaced by something resembling humility and holiness.
The stone rolls away and a spotlight shines from inside the tomb. The fog turns thick white, and it’s all Twaddell can see. Fog pours onto the stage, and he steps forward.
The audience applauds. Actors’ hands clap over mouths agape. Disciples fall to their knees on the concrete stage.
Something catches in Twaddell’s throat.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for seeing your friends’ faces when you come out of that tomb,” he said. “It’s beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”
With Simon Peter, he walks on water. With the house lights up, he grins wide and sings:
Forever he is glorified. Forever he is lifted high.
Twaddell climbs to the top of a mountainous set piece, where two members of the crew help attach his harness to the cables that will lift him skyward.
He is no longer afraid.
With arms spread wide, the crew gives the signal and the cables begin to move, hoisting him higher and higher, until he is completely out of sight.