Theater Review | 'Sin a Cardinal Deposed'
The Anguish Is Plausible, but His Eminence Forgets
By Charles Isherwood
The New York Times [New York]
October 27, 2004
Sins come in assorted sizes, according to the Catholic Church, but it's hard to take the full measure of the misdeeds exposed in this sober play about the sexual-abuse scandal that unfolded in New England over the past decades.
The scope of the wrongdoing is clearly too vast to fit comfortably on the shoulders of the elderly man sitting at the conference table before us. And yet Michael Murphy's quietly disturbing play, drawn from documentary evidence, reveals with devastating clarity the dubious role that Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the Archbishop of Boston, played in a tragedy that irreparably damaged hundreds of families, and destroyed more than a few lives.
The parenthetical phrase in the title of the New Group's "Sin (A Cardinal Deposed)," which opened last night at the Clurman Theater Off Broadway, is a play on words. Cardinal Law was technically not deposed as archbishop. He resigned his position after persistent questions were raised about his stewardship during a period when, it was ultimately determined, hundreds of children were molested by priests in his archdiocese. The play is a theatrically unadorned re-enactment of a literal deposition given by Cardinal Law in the presence of a pair of lawyers and one of the victims of abuse pursuing a civil case against the church.
In seeking to create a viable play from hours of testimony, Mr. Murphy has actually conflated two depositions given by Cardinal Law for separate cases into a single one. He has also edited the transcripts to minimize jargon and extraneous commentary, and supplemented the text with other evidence from the church's files that a judge released to the public in the course of the lawsuits. Letters from parishioners and priests relating to the case are read by actors seen through scrims at either side of the stage.
Still, the play is first and foremost a straightforward depiction of a dry legal proceeding. "Sin" is not a case of documentary material transformed into a work of art by theatrical wizardry, as in Moisés Kaufman's "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde," a play similarly derived mostly from verbatim testimony. Mr. Murphy and the director, Carl Forsman, present their material cogently and powerfully, but it is largely unfiltered by artistic sensibility.
The play is inevitably static, and audiences expecting dramatic fireworks may squirm with impatience at the hair-splitting give and take between the lawyers representing the cardinal and the plaintiffs in the civil suit. But listen closely, and a chilling drama can be detected beneath the restrained talk about notes scrawled on decades-old letters. It's the exposure of the moral and bureaucratic mechanics behind the church's failure to protect its members from the destructive acts of its priests.
Perhaps also visible, underneath the strained but cordial mask of propriety presented by John Cullum, who plays Cardinal Law, is another drama, the public stripping away of a man's illusions about his moral righteousness.
Mr. Cullum gives a performance of great delicacy and skill, and admirable objectivity. He takes his cues from the testimony itself, and resists imposing on his presentation any pre-determined assessment of culpability. At first, Cardinal Law comes across as a man of almost unshakeable self-possession, whose claims that he simply can't remember the relevant details sound plausible enough, particularly when the lawyer for the plaintiff, Orson Krieger (Thomas Jay Ryan), presents evidence dating back to the 1960's and 70's.
When faced with a later letter from a woman describing the abuse of boys by the Rev. John J. Geoghan, on which Cardinal Law had personally made a note, he cites both a foggy memory and bureaucratic procedure. The note was not proof that he had read the letter; it was simply evidence that he had delegated the matter to a bishop under him, whom he glibly (and tellingly) refers to as "in effect the chief operating officer." But when he is pressed further by Krieger, who wonders why the cardinal would put a personal note on a letter he didn't read, the cardinal's crisp syntax dissolves: "That kind of a note is a note that I would put on - having absorbed the content of whatever the backup, whatever the backup letter is. So the only thing I can say ... That is my signature. I wrote that. I would be lying to you if I said I recall having seen this letter before, but I can't sit here before you and say that I saw it when I don't think I did, when I don't remember seeing it."
Piece by piece, the evidence piles up. Dan Daily and particularly Cynthia Darlow give terrific performances as various correspondents. There are heartbreaking letters from parents of molested children wondering why a priest with a history of pedophilia would be returned to parish work. There are letters to Cardinal Law from alarmed priests concerned about church policy. Some describe the staggering case of the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, who spoke publicly, and favorably, about sexual relationships between men and boys - and yet was subsequently promoted by Cardinal Law. (On the advice of his lawyer, Cardinal Law declines to answer a question pertaining to this case.)
It is not really possible to condemn the cardinal as a malefactor, let alone a monster. His behavior was not simple villainy. But the play powerfully proves that it could hardly have been more dangerous if it were. A series of small, incremental failings on the part of the cardinal gradually assumes the aspect of a grave moral lapse, while circumstances conspired to give mere arrogance and ignorance the destructive power of greater evils.
Most disquieting - and damning - is the cardinal's (and the church's) apparent lack of concern for the victims, a point brought home by Krieger's needling questions contrasting Cardinal Law's supportive letters to the abusive priests with his lack of contact with the families of abused children. (A "delegate" handled that.) The play concludes with the testimony of Patrick McSorley (Pablo T. Schreiber), one of the plaintiffs in the suit, who describes in detail his experience. Wrenching as it is, his story isn't nearly as devastating - or as theatrically effective - as what has come just before.
With the deposition over, Cardinal Law rises stiffly from the table and takes his leave. He glances quickly at McSorley, and walks briskly by. He doesn't say a word.
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