Altared Stages

From Shanley's Doubt to Guirgis's Judas Iscariot, the Catholic Church undergoes intense theatrical scrutiny

Like Shanley, Guirgis hopes to spark some self-reflection—yes, in the Public's liberal audience. "All of us get comfortable with who we are, with the whole concept of good and evil. Evil can be a name we put on things to affirm ourselves. There's a line that Jesus says, If you hate who I love, you do not know me at all. As they say, Jesus came to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

He credits his "theological dramaturg," Reverend James Martin, a Jesuit priest, for leading him through the maze of Catholic mysteries. "Father Jim said the truth is that when we're children, we are taught a childish faith. When we become adults, we have a chance to develop an adult faith. But most of us just accept a childish version and don't go any further."

Despite its irreverent depiction of saints trash-talking and finger-snapping their way through the hereafter—this ain't your grandmother's Gospel—Guirgis's play is startlingly devout, and attracting unlikely supporters. The Catholic League's William Donohue, who led the crusade against Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi in 1998, says he's been advised that Last Daysraises "a lot of interesting questions." (On the other hand, don't get Donohue started about Valladolid, whose historical accuracy he deems "bullshit," an expression of "inveterate anti-Catholic sentiment. The idea that the Church was responsible for the violence done to the Indians is ridiculous. Listen, the Indians did a damn good job of raping each other.")

Judgment Day arrives: Brían F. O'Byrne in Doubt.
photo: Joan Marcus
Judgment Day arrives: Brían F. O'Byrne in Doubt.

Argument has a way of losing sight of the human factor, and even theater isn't immune to this temptation. Despite their stylistic and thematic range, all of the recent shows dealing with the Church are constructed as arguments (yes, even Altar Boyz). But theater is allergic to abstraction. Ask it to tell rather than show, to debate rather than dramatize, and the stage gets so heavy it sinks into the orchestra pit.

If Doubt is the most theatrically successful of the bunch, it's because Shanley finds a way to make the theological deeply personal. The play's struggle—and release—ultimately takes place in the riven heart of Sister Aloysius. Luckily for audiences, theater thrives on "the tricky part": that paradoxical space where the desire for the safety of belief and the reality of uncertainty are revealed as two sides of the same human experience.

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