Many people–believers and nonbelievers alike–view Jesus and Satan as the opposite poles of our moral compass: pure good and pure evil. But in Passion Play: A Cycle in Three Parts, dramatist Sarah Ruhl focuses on Pontius Pilate as Christ’s mirror image. The son of God died to take the sins of humanity on his shoulders; the Roman governor of Judea, according to gospel, refused to accept responsibility for the messiah’s crucifixion even though he ordered it, literally washing his hands of the guilt.

In Ruhl’s inventive but uneven work, the face-off between Pilate and Jesus is replayed in the context of a passion play–or rather three of them. Ruhl’s three-and-a-half-hour drama, whose three acts are set in different historical periods, spins variations on an emotional triangle between the actors portraying Jesus, Pilate, and the Virgin Mary in liturgical dramas reenacting the crucifixion and resurrection. As the trio’s relationships change in each scenario, so does what these iconic figures represent. The dramas are set against the politics of the times in which the characters live–turbulent eras when leaders exploited religion to embody moral as well as temporal authority.

The show’s first–and decidedly most successful–portion takes place in an English village in 1575, when the country was reeling from the anti-Protestant purges of the late queen, Bloody Mary. Her sister and successor, Elizabeth I, has restored Protestantism as the state religion, but closet Catholics cling to their annual passion play. “The stage is our house of worship,” declares John, the intense young fisherman who’s been cast as Jesus. John’s cousin–conveniently named Pontius–covets the part of Christ but must settle for the role of Pilate. Pontius is in love with Mary, the pretty lass cast as the Virgin Mother, though she has an eye for John, who looks damn good in a loincloth. But John’s faith has bound him to a life of celibacy. When Mary gets pregnant by Pontius and her role is taken over by an eccentric teenage girl dismissed by others as the “village idiot,” John must grapple with the limits of his power to help the woman he chastely loves. And when Queen Elizabeth arrives to assert her symbolic role as virgin mother to England–and to sternly reinforce the primacy of her religion–the town faces the prospect that its passion play will be canceled.

The second act is set in 1934 in the Bavarian town of Oberammergau, where the passion play has become an international tourist attraction–and a showcase for anti-Semitic propaganda. The woman playing Mary is the mistress of a Nazi officer, the actor playing Pilate is a soldier, and Eric, the youth playing Christ, is his lover. Like his Elizabethan counterpart John, Eric burns with the need to believe in something; he finds it in Hitler, who comes to Oberammergau to give his blessing to the production. But Eric’s commitment to the fuhrer’s plans for rebuilding Germany comes with a price: he must betray an innocent Jewish girl–played by the same actor who was the village idiot in act one–who’s blurted out a prophetic warning of the Holocaust.

Act two anticipates war; act three examines war’s aftermath. It’s 1984 and Ronald Reagan, running for reelection, has arrived in Spearfish, South Dakota, where an Up With People-style passion play makes a perfect campaign stop for a president whose base of support is the fundamentalist Christian right. The problem is that Spearfish is still recovering from the wounds of Vietnam. Here the actors playing Jesus and Pilate, called simply J and P, are brothers. P served in Vietnam while J went to college and studied acting. P is married to Mary, but J fathered Mary’s daughter–who may be the reincarnation of the Jewish child from Oberammergau. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, P is haunted by visions, including visitations from Hitler and Queen Elizabeth.

Like Tony Kushner in his AIDS epic Angels in America, Ruhl melds reality and fantasy, refusing to clarify whether these visions are hallucinations or acts of divine intervention. But as the fantastical aspect grows more dominant in the third act, the play loses focus. The closer Passion Play gets to our time, the farther removed it feels. The characters and conflicts in act one are credible and moving; the story’s simplicity reveals its deep moral dimensions. Act two turns preachy as Ruhl focuses on the evil of Nazism; the male lovers’ furtive relationship seems a contrivance, and Mary veers dangerously close to campy caricature, suggesting the villainess of a World War II melodrama. She also gets the show’s worst line, delivered in response to her Nazi boyfriend’s complaint about being stuck home alone with the furniture: “Lamp shades don’t make for very good company.”

By act three, Passion Play flounders, taxing an already tiring audience’s patience with an avalanche of visual imagery, including a procession of oversize fishes and a huge 16th-century sailing vessel that appears out of nowhere and carries Pilate to heaven. The ship may be intended as a final coup de theatre, but it comes off as a desperate, self-indulgent gimmick to bring the evening to a close. Ruhl and director Mark Wing-Davey are clearly paying homage to the spectacle of the traditional passion play. But they unintentionally strip P’s emotional and spiritual crisis of all reality and trivialize the tragic impact of the Vietnam war. And it’s odd that there’s no reference to how the Reagan revolution empowered the Christian right.

First seen in 2005 at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Passion Play is being significantly reworked during its run at the Goodman. Wing-Davey has assembled a first-rate design team, but the elaborate production, with its flying boats and zooming media backgrounds, often overshadows rather than complements Ruhl’s crisp, confident language.

But Wing-Davey shines in directing the fine cast. Ruhl’s decision to have the same actors play parallel characters in all three acts could seem gimmicky but doesn’t because of the depth and gravity that Joaquin Torres as John, Brian Sgambati as Pontius, Kristen Bush as Mary, and Polly Noonan as the village idiot bring to their roles. Their emotional honesty is a strong contrast to T. Ryder Smith’s intentionally heightened artificiality as Elizabeth, Hitler, and Reagan. Juxtaposing the stories of simple people with the interventions of iconic historical figures is a bold concept, and if Ruhl can tighten this sprawling, overlong work, it has the potential to excite as well as illuminate.

WHEN Through 10/21: Wed 7:30 PM, Thu 1:30 and 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 1:30 PM

WHERE Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn

PRICE $20-$70

INFO 312-443-3800