A friend of mine, raised Catholic but now a practicing pagan, once explained to me the difference between Christian and pagan prayer. “We don’t kneel,” she proclaimed. “We don’t bow in submission to a divine other. We stand tall and proud, our arms outspread, to embrace the gods all around us.”

I doubt that any of the cast members in The Gospel at Colonus would approve of my friend’s religious beliefs; most of the 50-some performers holding forth on the Goodman Theatre stage seem firmly rooted in the Christian church. But their brand of Christianity–and the brand of grandly ecumenical religious passion that permeates this brilliant, elevating show–embodies the vigorous, earthy spirituality that my pagan friend seeks in her prayer.

Written and directed by playwright-lyricist Lee Breuer and composer-pianist Bob Telson, The Gospel at Colonus fuses the religious and musical-theatrical rituals of the ancient Greeks and modern African Americans. The show succeeds wildly–and I do mean wildly, for nothing I have ever seen in 30 years of attending and working in the theater has ever matched the sense of exalted release that The Gospel at Colonus produces in its audiences. Breuer and Telson’s brilliant concept works on several levels. It appeals on an intellectual level to those sophisticated and educated enough to appreciate the authors’ reworking of Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus at Colonus; it also works marvelously as sheer entertainment for those who couldn’t care less about such things. You don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy it–or religious at all, for that matter–but viewers’ religious feelings, of whatever variety, will only heighten their enjoyment.

Best of all, The Gospel at Colonus erases the lines between “amateur” and “professional,” and audience and performer. The cast is a combination of full-time, union-dues-paying actors and singers and community-based choristers who are no less artists for earning their livings outside of music and theater. Such a combination could only work under the supervision of a director who is both a consummate professional and truly committed to theater as a people’s art form. Lee Breuer is such a director, and for those weary of a musical theater that steamrolls audiences into submission–yes, I mean The Phantom of the Opera, among others–The Gospel at Colonus is nothing less than a faith-restoring affirmation of theater as a fundamental, emotionally enriching human activity.

This, of course, is what the ancient Greeks had in mind when they unveiled their new plays at religious festivals. Oedipus at Colonus was first produced at Athens’s festival of Dionysus in 401 BC, about five years after the death of its author. Sophocles wrote the work shortly before his death, when he was about 90; it was the climax not only of his life and career but of the trilogy for which he is best known–the tragedies detailing the sorrows of the house of Oedipus. Working from a legend already ancient when he approached it, Sophocles created a cycle of plays that spoke directly to his own time and place as well as to larger concerns whose universality has kept these dramas alive over some 2,400 years of religious and political change.

In Sophocles’ time, a writer was expected to address serious matters–whether he was writing noble tragedy, as Sophocles was, or bawdy farce, as Aristophanes was when he penned Lysistrata at around the same time. Both writers were addressing a once-great society in decline: Athens, birthplace of democracy and embodiment of the highest aspirations of human civilization, was nearing eclipse after decades of war with other Greek city-states, disastrous foreign military failures, plague, and fierce internal strife between lovers of democracy and those who wanted to restore a more “orderly” tyrannical government. To Athenian audiences, the tragic hero Oedipus–redeemed by divine mercy after decades of suffering–was as potent a symbolic figure as, well, as Jesus Christ was to the oppressed blacks who developed gospel music in America. Specifically, Oedipus’s choice to die at Colonus, a suburb of Athens, rather than in Thebes, the city-state from which he was exiled–and his choice to reveal his final wisdom secretly to Theseus, legendary king of Athens–was significant to Athenians, who knew that the Thebans of their own time had argued for the destruction of Athens and enslavement of its citizens when Sparta defeated Athens in the Peloponnesian War.

Following the suicide of his wife Jocasta–who was also his mother, and whom he wed after killing her husband without knowing the man was also his father–Oedipus gouges out his own eyes and wanders for years, finally arriving at Colonus. Though Oedipus committed the crimes of patricide and incest in ignorance, he is no less responsible for them–a theme essential to Christianity, which is based on the notion of original sin that can only be erased by God’s mercy. Oedipus’s receipt of this mercy is the theme of Oedipus at Colonus; the fact that Oedipus is a near-divine figure who, through his own acceptance of guilt and endurance of suffering, takes onto himself the sins of all humanity makes this theme singularly appropriate to the old-time religion trumpeted in a black Pentecostal service.

The Gospel at Colonus is set in such a service. The actors and singers onstage play members of a church congregation who, in turn, portray the characters in Sophocles’ tragedy. The choir is the Chorus, commenting on the action and expanding the moods of sorrow and serenity through their odes. Various church leaders and members take on the key roles of Oedipus, his daughters Antigone and Ismene, his son Polyneices, his friend Theseus, and his enemy Creon; the all-important Messenger is played by a visiting pastor who delivers the story as a sermon.

It is, I guess, to Breuer’s credit as director that many audience members fail to see that The Gospel at Colonus is a show within a show. “They’re so undisciplined, but they’re wonderful,” one local director commented to me during intermission on opening night. They’re wonderful indeed, but hardly undisciplined. Some first-rate actors are in the cast–among them Robert Earl Jones (James Earl’s father), Johnny Lee Davenport, Catherine Slade, and Terrence A. Carson; a great deal of the show’s pleasure lies in watching them play leaders of the church taking on Sophoclean roles. Their performances are sometimes awkward, sometimes wonderful–always the result of careful craftsmanship from these very fine actors. When Slade, as an evangelist, speaks the words of Antigone’s mournful elegy for her dead father in the quiet but oceanically rhythmical cadences of a black preacher, Sophocles’ poetry comes alive in a way it never does when read in the actorish “classical” style–and in a way Slade probably couldn’t pull off if she weren’t playing a church evangelist who’s playing Antigone. And when Carson, as a member of the congregation, enacts the role of Polyneices–the disloyal, warlike son whose rejection by Oedipus symbolizes the rejection of evil just as does Christ’s rejection of Satan–the appearance of this churchgoing kid in tight, threateningly sexy leather pants has an edge that it wouldn’t if Carson were simply playing Polyneices.

Gospel singer Clarence Fountain is plain perfect as Sophocles’ hero: proud and cocky yet humbled by a hard life, rustic and raw (as Oedipus would be, having lived in the wilderness) and actually blind, Fountain portrays a sightless man with no theatrical artificiality. And in Oedipus’s showdown with the wily Theban king Creon, Sophocles’ dramatic theme is expanded by the playful but not frivolous competition between Fountain, a major star in his own musical field, and guitar-wielding soul singer “Pops” Staples, who contributes an original song.

Music, of course, is the heart and soul of this show; Telson leads a crack band–love that throbbing organ and those percussive horns–and the singing is nothing short of gorgeous. Two local choruses, the Faith Tabernacle Voices and Kelvin & Company, complement fabulous lead vocals by Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Soul Stirrers (featuring the gravelly growling of Martin Jacox and the sweet-as-honey falsetto of Willie Rogers), singer-guitarist Sam Butler Jr., Shari A. Seals (whose very visible real-life pregnancy amplifies her portrayal of Ismene, the symbol of a nurturing life force), Carolyn Johnson-White, and J.D. Steele, whose outrageously florid, dancerly moves as solo singer and choral conductor reaffirm the value of humor as an appropriate element of ritual.

Indeed, for a work officially classified as tragedy, The Gospel at Colonus is lots of laughs. Some of the laughs come in response to the sheer audacity of the concept of black Christians shouting “All right!” and “Hallelujah!” in response to names like Oedipus and Jocasta instead of Jesus and Mary. Other laughs reflect sheer delight in the riotous collection of colors in Alison Yerxa’s scenery (including a fantasy painting of an angel-filled heaven), Ghretta Hynd’s costumes, and Robert Christen’s lighting. Most of the laughs come from sheer exhilaration at this joyous, eye-popping, rafter-raising extravaganza of music, movement, and love.