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Act of contrition

A new play by Michael Murphy brings the Boston clergy-sexual-abuse scandal to the stage. Sin: A Cardinal Deposed turns an unflattering eye on Bernard Cardinal Law, the former Boston archbishop who came to epitomize the Catholic Church’s negligent handling of its pedophile priests. Law, of course, resigned in 2002 without admitting any guilt in the scandal. Now, his words have found new life on stage, as Sin takes all its dialogue verbatim from Law’s pretrial depositions in lawsuits filed by clergy-abuse victims. Previously produced by Chicago’s Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, the play will be making its local debut in June. The Phoenix spoke with the Bailiwick’s founding artistic director, David Zak, about Murphy’s play.

Q: What inspired the Bailiwick to create a play from legal documents?

A: There’s a different experience for people when they read about something in the headlines and when they’re with an audience watching a live performance. It’s much more of an emotional experience to hear testimonies performed. The survivors’ and witnesses’ testimonies are the heart and soul of this play.

Q: Was it difficult to translate a scene without action — a deposition — for the stage?

A: [Playwright] Michael Murphy did a great job of distilling thousands of pages of documents down to a two-hour script. That was heroic work. We changed it some to make it theatrical. A deposition would not have had the high theatrics of a courtroom setting with a judge and all that. We worked with lawyers and added movement. But most of the time, audiences are quiet when watching the play. The fact that it’s not fictionalized dialogue gives it power and makes you shake your head, saying, "I can’t believe he said that." But he did.

Q: How have abuse survivors responded to the play?

A: They have been fantastic. We met survivors during the rehearsal process to talk about their experiences, which raised the stakes for us. When people who have had similar experiences get involved in the show, everything changes for the actors. It becomes more than a job. It’s a passion.

Q: This scandal evoked rage, horror, and depression in news readers. Is that what audience members can expect?

A: The play is unsettling. There are not a lot of big jokes or release sequences. But that comes in afterwards, when audiences talk with the actors and have that communal experience that you only get from live theater.

Q: Have you gotten any response from the archdiocese?

A: Not officially. In Chicago, we tried to buy an ad in the New World, the official Catholic newspaper here. It was rejected because the editor said the story is over, which was incredible to me. The play does not trash the Church. It presents a set of circumstances honestly, and, as far as I’m concerned, honesty has never hurt anybody.

Q: What do you hope Bostonians will take away from the play?

A: I hope they’ll get the chance to experience this scandal in a new way and move toward closure. I grew up in a Catholic household, and what’s interesting to me are the initial discussions in the play when the cardinal and Garabedian talk about the concept of sin — that no matter what you do as a Catholic you can go into this booth with a priest and confess your sins and get a clean slate. It’s interesting that the Church doesn’t want to do what it encourages its members to do, which is to come forward and say, "This is my problem. I won’t do it again."

"Sin: A Cardinal Deposed" will perform Wednesdays-Saturdays at various times at the Regent Theatre, 7 Medford Street, Arlington. Tickets are $30 to $50 and can be purchased online at www.acardinaldeposed.com or by calling 781-646-4849.

Issue Date: May 28 - June 3, 2004
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