LAKELAND — From 1953 to 1998, a recreation of the Passion of Jesus Christ was performed annually in Lake Wales at a permanent, outdoor location surrounded by orange groves.

But that play was much more of a traditional interpretation of the last days of Jesus before his crucifixion on the cross. Lakeland's Highland Park Church is bringing what staff members say is a more contemporary and visually-dynamic look at the life, death and resurrection of the Son of God.

From Friday to Sunday, the church will present "The Thorn," a nationally-touring Passion play that combines martial arts, aerial acrobatics and audience-cast interactions.

Madison McNulty, Highland Park Church communications director, said a church member had seen a performance of "The Thorn" and recommended it be produced there. She said the church staff administration thought "The Thorn" would be a way to present the Passion in a different and unique way.

"It was kind of obvious when we saw it; it was what we were looking for," she said. "I think the main thing is people will find the light through it because it's such a neat way for people to hear the word in a non-threatening way.'

"The Thorn" was written in 1997 by John and Sarah Bolin, youth pastors in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

Sarah Bolin, executive producer, said at 2½ hours with an intermission, "The Thorn" has about 40 touring actors and utilizes approximately 20 local actors from areas in which it's being performed. She said she and her husband originally created the play to communicate to students the importance of everyday choices and the students' values to God.

She said in addition to aerial arts, dance, ballet and singing are prominent in performances.

"You won't find (Apostle) Peter walking and singing in a garden. The actors aren't all speaking or singing roles. We have a large cast and focus on the supernatural side of the story, including angels and demons," said Bolin, speaking the day after a show in Austin, Texas. "There's a broader scope and it expands on the greater story of the Passion."

The Highland Park Church presentation will be "The Thorn's" first in Florida and McNulty said she hopes many of the church's 2,200 members and visitors will take time to get a different view of the Passion of Jesus Christ.

"It's a compelling way to portray the life and death of Jesus," she said.

Dan Stayskal, president and founder of Lakeland's White Thorn Events, which is promoting "The Thorn" with Colorado Springs' Compassion International, said plans are to make "The Thorn" an annual event.

Paul Catala can be reached at or 863-802-7533. He can be reached at Twitter @pcat0226.