An Emotional and Cathartic Telling of 'Sin'

By Ed Siegel
Boston Globe
June 10, 2004

ARLINGTON -- The saga of Cardinal Bernard Law is steeped in tragedy, classical and otherwise. There is the fall from great heights of a leader through more than one tragic flaw. And there is the greater tragedy of the victims of priestly abuse -- all the lives scarred, and even lost, because he and the Catholic Church would not take responsibility for what was happening under its collective roof.

"Sin: A Cardinal Deposed," which opened at the Regent Theatre last night, tries to balance those twin tragedies and, in general, playwright Michael Murphy does a highly creditable job. If he ends up paying more attention to the tragedy of the victims than to the cardinal, at least he is reversing the wrong done by Law and others, who cared more about the abusers than the abused.

This is the Chicago production that opened last March by Bailiwick Repertory, an adventurous company chosen by Murphy in part because it could mount the production quickly without extensive workshops.

Although there's quite a bit of rawness in the result, it was worth it for all concerned. This is never going to be a play that stands on the same shelf as anything by Eugene ONeill. And as documentary work about real events, it isn't "Judgment at Nuremberg."

But it is strong theater of another sort. Like the work of Moises Kaufman ("The Laramie Project") and Anna Deavere Smith, it distills current events into something that goes beyond journalism into something more emotionally direct and cathartic.

Murphy splits the play into two acts, with Law and his legal team (here condensed into J. Owen Todd) being examined by Mitchell Garabedian and Roderick MacLeish Jr., lawyers for the plaintiffs in the matter of the Rev. John Geoghan and the Rev. Paul Shanley respectively. Three actors play the parts of victims and other concerned parties.

Those looking for an imitation of Law will be disappointed, but Jim Sherman is a strong presence who captures the essence of Law's strengths and weaknesses. Each of the other actors plays a number of characters, although three concentrate on the lawyers. Mark A. Steel is the most riveting presence onstage, first providing wrenching testimony by an abused boy in the first act and as MacLeish in the second.

Steel may borrow a bit too much glibness from TV courtroom shows, but his humor is something the play desperately needs. Depositions do not make for Shakespearean dialogue and the play is perpetually in danger of succumbing to legalese.

A little melodrama, then, can be forgiven in Steel's performance. As a whole, the cast seems sharper than they were a few of months ago. Would the play have been better served if it had been cast locally, with more experienced actors who had lived through Law's tenure in Boston? Probably, although Bailiwick deserves this shot. It almost seems as if it's their work as much as Murphy's at this point.

Throughout the play, Murphy and Sherman portray Law as a man falling from grace by withdrawing too far into byzantine bureaucracy and by listening only to people who told him what he wanted to hear (and conveniently forgetting the warnings that we now know he received about abusive priests).

A better play might have developed the idea of Law's determination to find the humanity in all the sinners he tended to, including Geoghan and Shanley. But "Sin: A Cardinal Deposed" eloquently makes clear that by thinking more of the abusive priests than their victims, it is questionable that Law deserves any more of our sympathy than Murphy affords him.


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