Playwright Michael Murphy plowed through 1,000 pages of Cardinal Law's deposition, a drama in its own right, and compressed them into an eye-opening script. Six actors take the roles of the cardinal, attorneys, priests, victims, and the whistleblowers who were unheeded through the decades. The result is a powerful crystallization of the evil that was perpetrated on children by a few degenerate priests and by the skewed priorities of the Boston Archdiocese hierarchy.
What keeps Sin: A Cardinal Deposed from complete success as a play is the necessity of being faithful to the actual transcript and the fact that some characters in the realistically staged courtroom drama don't get to move around or think aloud. But there is artistry in the actors' depth of feeling and in the way that the testimony and letters of the victims and whistleblowers are interwoven with the deposition. An extra level of drama comes from a mute but palpable interaction with the audience, especially the concerned Catholics, victims, and victim advocates in attendance.
The play opens with sacred music and the song "Amazing Grace" setting an ironic tone for the entrance of Cardinal Law (Jim Sherman), who arrives bathed in diabolical red light and wearing regal-looking vestments. Members of the cast step forward to deliver the fulsome praise that the cardinal garnered in the years before the abuse cover-up exploded; the cardinal's vestments are then hung as a backdrop for the tables and chairs that comprise the simple set, and the deposition begins.
In the first act, the focus is on the depravities of the late John Geoghan; his victims are represented by Mitchell Garabedian, played with passion by Patrick Rybarczyk. As the sole woman in the ensemble, Naomi Landman delivers a series of devastating and largely ignored testimonies. One of these comes from struggling single mother Marietta Dussourd, whose faith in the goodness of the priesthood crumbles in an agonized realization of her children's trauma: "I'm the reason this has happened to everybody!"
In Act I, Mark A. Steel plays victims with intensity and church representatives with nonchalance; in Act II, he's powerful as attorney Roderick Macleish, Jr., the lawyer for victims of Father Paul Shanley (an abuser for more than 30 years). Steve Best is expressive as the cardinal's lawyer, Owen Todd, even when he has no lines. Patrick Gannon delivers a number of critical characterizations, including an understated but devastating interpretation of victim Patrick McSorley, who died just a few months ago at age 29. Gannon also plays a Massachusetts social services official who, after a televised documentary on priest abuse in the commonwealth, plucks up the courage to offer the cardinal insights on his personal experience of priest abuse; in one of many appalling instances of institutionalized arrogance, the cardinal's deputy gives him the brush-off.
With the relentless accumulation of data on the abuse, the complaints, quack psychological treatment of the priests, reinstatement of the offenders in settings where they would meet children, and the fact that Law sent kindly letters to priests regarding their "sickness" but no letters at all to the victims, the horror inexorably penetrates the powerful cleric's carapace. We see Sherman's defiant Law begin to hesitate in his answers to lawyers. Having repeatedly protested that he had a pastoral duty to succor his troubled priests and that he trusted his delegates to attend to any victims, he begins to waver ever so slightly in his assurance. Is he hearing the whispers of conscience that his absolute power has deadened? Although this hint of uneasiness doesn't elicit much sympathy for him, his doubts do make him seem a bit more human.
It's to be hoped that the Bailiwick Theater will continue to hold post-show discussions for this production; comments from the audience and actors enrich the experience of this production.