Jesuit Priest Reflects on Off-Broadway Experience

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The Jesuit ideal of ‘finding God in all things’ leads Father James Martin, S.J., to encounter people in unlikely settings--including behind the scenes with an Off-Broadway theater troupe working on Stephen Adly Guirgis's play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

"A Jesuit Off-Broadway"

The Jesuit ideal of ‘finding God in all things’ leads Father James Martin, S.J., to encounter people in unlikely settings--including behind the scenes with an Off-Broadway theater troupe working on Stephen Adly Guirgis's play, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. Martin, the bestselling author of My Life with the Saints, recounts his experiences as a ‘theological dramaturg’ in his book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway (Loyola Press, $22.95).

Actor Sam Rockwell, preparing to play the role of Judas, sought out Martin to help the LAByrinth Theater Company understand what happened to Jesus and the man who betrayed him. Thus began a dialogue with Rockwell, the playwright Guirgis, the director, Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, and cast members about the historical and theological context for the play. Their freewheeling discussions grew to include spiritual questions that weighed on their minds: What is sin? Does hell exist? Is anyone beyond God's forgiveness?

Martin found himself offering a crash course in New Testament 101, and discussing the theological complexities of issues such as forgiveness and despair, which led Judas to commit suicide, according to Christian tradition.

As artists have done for centuries, playwright Guirgis hoped to interpret the story of Jesus for his own time. He had wondered about Judas's fate ever since third grade, when he was taught in Catholic school that God had consigned Judas to hell. His play considers whether or not Judas deserved eternal damnation, putting him on trial with witnesses including Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud, and Pontius Pilate. It's a sophisticated theological treatment in the slangy and sometimes vulgar contemporary urban argot that marks Guirgis' work.

The lack of historical information about Judas was a blessing and a curse for the creative team. It offered great freedom with the story, but made understanding his motivation more difficult. Without knowing Judas's history, Sam Rockwell could not give a nuanced performance. Once Martin helped Rockwell see Judas as supportive of Jesus' ministry, he was able to portray him as something more than the monster described by most Christian writers.

Martin spent six months working with the cast and crew. The experience not only introduced him to the acting life, it reinforced for him the importance of narrative in the spiritual life.

A Jesuit Off-Broadway:
Center Stage with Jesus, Judas, and Life's Big Questions
by James Martin, S.J.
foreword by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Loyola Press
Hardcover $22.95
ISBN-13: 978-0-8294-2582-6 ISBN-10: 0-8294-2582-9

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Michelle Halm
Loyola Press
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