In recent years, documentary theater has become a powerful means of providing insight into several of society’s most pressing issues. Anna Deveare Smith pioneered such work with Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992, which examined the situations surrounding two different high-profile race riots. Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project similarly explored the background of the murder of gay student Matthew Shepard in The Laramie Project; Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, in turn, tackled the death penalty in their award-winning show The Exonerated. All of these authors worked from interviews and public records, using the actual words of people directly involved or affected. Michael Murphy’s Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) applies a similar method to the sex abuse scandals that rocked the Catholic Church and led to a landmark $85 million settlement paid to victims of child molestation by Catholic priests. This riveting new play takes as its main source material the depositions made by Cardinal Bernard Law, who is played in the production by veteran actor John Cullum.
Murphy has condensed and edited hours of deposition testimony that Cardinal Law gave in two different civil suits. Likewise, the number of lawyers involved in the actual cases have been reduced to two (one for each side) and given fictional names: Orson Krieger (Thomas Jay Ryan), the lawyer for the victims, and William Varley (John Leonard Thompson), who represents the Cardinal. Also appearing is Patrick McSorley (Pablo T. Schreiber), who in real life was the most outspoken of the survivors of sex abuse committed by Father John Geoghan.
Law, who served as Boston’s Archbishop and later Cardinal, was a highly influential figure in the Catholic Church. Among other things, his office oversaw the appointments and transfers of priests throughout the archdiocese. Ultimately, it was his responsibility to address complaints and accusations in regard to the improper conduct of individual priests. In Sin (A Cardinal Deposed), Krieger sets out to show that not only was Law negligent in that duty but that he actively covered up scandalous behavior and showed more compassion to the perpetrators of the abuse than to its victims.
There’s considerable friction between the two lawyers within the play, and arguments over procedural points as Krieger tries to get direct and specific answers from the Cardinal. It should be noted that Law doesn’t exactly avoid answering the questions; his remarks that he does not recall seeing certain letters written more than two decades ago or that many such matters were handled by his assistant without going through him directly seem, at first, to be quite plausible. However, as the evidence accumulates, and correspondence written by Law himself comes to the fore, his excuses do not hold up.
Cullum is excellent, demonstrating a keen intelligence as Cardinal Law. He maintains a dignified presence even when Law is forced to admit that every single priest accused of child molestation within the archdiocese was returned to active duty in a parish. Ryan shows admirable restraint as Krieger; while he can be passionate about the case at hand, it’s also obvious he’s trying to control his feelings in order to do his job effectively. Thompson is also quite good, his initial argumentativeness gradually fading away as the deposition proceeds; it seems that he is either at a loss to help his client or he recognizes that, indeed, a grave wrong has been committed and he’s on the wrong side of the case.
As McSorley, Schreiber remains silent for most of the play, although he is an active listener and breaks out into a strangled laugh when Varley calls Krieger’s line of questioning “abusive.” The closing moments of the play give voice to McSorley’s experiences, and Schreiber’s low-key delivery is extremely moving as he recounts the traumatic details. Dan Daily and Cynthia Darlow play additional characters whose letters are read during the course of the deposition. Darlow is particularly riveting as a mother whose sons were raped by Father Geoghan, while Daily excels as a government official — himself an abuse survivor — who tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with Cardinal Law. The two actors occupy areas on either side of the stage, changing costumes and accents to indicate their different roles.
Nathan Heverin’s set, Theresa Squire’s costumes, Josh Bradford’s lighting, and Samuel Doerr’s sound design support the production very well. Director Carl Forsman keeps the tension level high throughout the proceedings, and carefully calibrates the emotional impact of key scenes. In one of the show’s most telling moments, Cardinal Law moves to exit the room after giving his deposition. He must pass by McSorley in order to reach the door. While McSorley stares directly at him, Cardinal Law does not meet his gaze, refusing to acknowledge McSorley’s presence. This brief non-encounter speaks volumes as to the Cardinal’s culpability in terms of ignoring the abuse survivors. Sin (A Cardinal Deposed) is a timely and important work that sheds additional light on the Catholic Church’s appalling behavior in neglecting those it supposedly serves while attempting to cover up the crimes of its priests.