Playwright: Michael Murphy
At: Bailiwick Repertory, 1229 W. Belmont
Phone: (773) 883-1090; $22-$25
Runs through: April 11
The great thing about Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, now in its world premiere at the Bailiwick, is that it shies away from taking a strict black or white position on a deeply disturbing subject: the wave of pedophilia accorded to Catholic priests over the past several years. While playwright Michael Murphy certainly doesn't present Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law in a very sympathetic light, he does give the man dignity, while demonstrating how good intentions gone awry can also be the seeds of evil. In the end, allowing something to happen can often be nearly as bad as the thing itself.
David Zak has directed a thought-provoking, serious, and troubling look at Law, whose ability to obfuscate while testifying in his own defense in the recent—and infamous—case involving hundreds of priests and their victims is extraordinary. Also extraordinary, and portrayed with chilling and telling detail, is the Cardinal's ability to live in a world of denial. Over and over again—and court testimony bears this out—the Cardinal had the opportunity to intervene and stop the sexual abuse of minors by priests under his supervision … but didn't. Instead, he preferred to 'delegate' (a word he liked to use) responsibility and to turn his back on credible reports from many sources, including victims and their families. Sin: A Cardinal Deposed, though, paints a portrait of a deeply conflicted man, one who wanted to be a good and compassionate 'shepherd' to those who served under him, and one who, at the same time, allowed abuse to go on for years without doing much to stop it.
Bailiwick's thoughtful and thought-provoking production is a study in pared-down intensity. A minimalist set, simple lighting, and the barest of props and costumes allows the sometimes shocking testimony culled from Law's deposition to ring through with compelling clarity. James Sherman portrays Law in all of his shades of gray and admirably creates a sympathetic rendering of a man who could easily be played as a monster. Sherman's portrayal shows the Cardinal's frustration with himself, and hints at the shame that might accompany his inability to act. Zak directs a mostly deft ensemble (especially Sherman and Naomi Landman in a variety of portrayals, all pitch perfect) and handles the proceedings with a minimum of histrionics (the climactic second act speech by a suitably outraged attorney could be toned down a notch, despite its justification).
But all in all, Bailiwick has an impressive production on its hands here, one that takes a headline-grabbing, emotional issue and lays it out with logic and compassion. Murphy's script, which could use just a little cutting and tightening (common for a first-time produced work), is nevertheless solid, weaving the voices of many characters into one cohesive piece.
If you haven't been to a Bailiwick show in a while (or even if you have), this is one to put on your must-see list. It marks a higher standard of maturity for the theater.