Actor says Scriptures strike chords today

All kinds of random things go through our heads when we are waiting in line at the grocery store or filling up our gas tanks. Brad Sherrill often finds himself running lines from the Bible.

For the past 10 years, the 48-year-old Atlanta actor has performed his one-man show “The Gospel of John,” putting on more than 600 shows for audiences in 40 states, Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland — playing to tiny churches in towns with one traffic light, as well as the majestic cathedrals of kings and queens.

A 22-year member of the Georgia Shakespeare theater company, Sherrill is a mixture of intellectual rigor and priestly calm. After a performance of “Gospel,” he often finds that people want to confide in him or share their problems. Sometimes, they are so moved that they burst into tears at his touch.

This week at Georgia Shakespeare, Sherrill unveils his latest one-man show, “Prophets,” drawn from Old Testament texts he believes have an eerie resonance in today’s world. While “Gospel” is a 2½-hour show containing all of the nearly 20,000 words from the New Testament book, “Prophets” condenses the words of Isaiah, Jeremiah and other messengers into an intermissionless 90-minute performance that includes multimedia design and is structured around a courtroom conceit. (“Gospel” and “Prophets” run in repertory Tuesday-Sunday at the Oglethorpe University-based theater.)

Sherrill, an avid reader and researcher who now devotes eight months of the year to his faith-based theater work, finds that the Old Testament sages were concerned with social injustice and poverty, with the persistence of greed in a universe blighted by hunger and disease.

“I feel that they are vital to us now because the human condition does not change,” he said of the Scriptures, which he is gleaning not for their “gloom and doom” qualities but what they tell us about cycles of history. “We are all hungry for security, for food and a meaning for our life. ‘How do I live in this world?’ These texts for me are not dusty, flattened, closed off in some book. But just like the greatest stuff in Shakespeare, there is something there that has kept them alive and relevant.”

Sherrill — who looks and sounds a little like Bill Paxton of HBO’s “Big Love” — grew up in the Chamblee United Methodist Church, which he still attends. His first performance was in a production of “Camelot” at that church, and he traces his intertwined passions for the Bible and theater back to that formative time. “I still consider myself an actor, but I consider myself a kind of circuit pastor and amateur theologian.”

Years ago, he took up the “Gospel of John” as a daily devotional tool without ever thinking it might some day be a performance piece. “I walked out on my front porch and started to learn the prologue, to memorize it,” he said during an interview in a Georgia Shakespeare conference room. “The more I got into it, the more it started to resonate with me.”

Today, after hundreds of performances, “ ‘Gospel’ remains fresh,” he said, “because these words I feel are living and active and moving and refuse to be decided upon or forced into some certain little box.”

Unlike the Gospel of John, however, the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah are too long to memorize. “They are too huge,” he said. “You can’t learn the whole books, and I tell you, nobody would want to sit there for them.”

During the new piece, which features multimedia and sound design by his manager, Mark Hickman, the prophets are called in like witnesses in a courtroom as images of suffering and devastation whir by on a video screen. Sherrill finds parallels between things like Wall Street’s bull and the story of Moses and the Golden Calf. “I feel God is scandalized by injustice and has an overriding concern for the oppressed, the marginal and the poor,” he said.

As ominous as the words of prophets can be, the actor wants to stress a sense of hope and salvation. “We can’t, sitting here in 2010, imagine a world where there is not injustice, war or violence, a world where a billion people don’t live in extreme poverty. But the prophets can. They have this beautiful poetic imagery that seems to be expressing God’s hope.”