In October 2004, I found a surprising message on my voice mail from the actor Sam Rockwell. “I’m working on a play about Judas Iscariot,” he said. “Could I ask you some questions about him?” Two weeks later Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright, called asking for advice on The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, his new play. Directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and produced at the Public Theater in New York City, the play put Judas on trial for the death of Jesus and drew me into a role as theological adviser. The following excerpt from A Jesuit Off-Broadway explores how immersion into the story of Jesus and Judas changed the spiritual lives of the cast.
Written in the playwrights trademark streetwise style, Stephen’s play had moved the actors along their individual spiritual paths, but in highly personal ways. After the run ended in April 2005, I asked the cast and creative team whether they thought about faith any differently. I had to adjust my expectations. For secretly I harbored the hope that spending time with the Gospel stories would help the actors become more spiritual, more religious and, in some cases, more Christian. After all, for the past six months they had immersed themselves in roles like Jesus of Nazareth, Judas Iscariot, Mary Magdalene and St. Peter.
But the plays effect was subtler than that, and I was reminded (once again) that people’s spiritual lives are too complex to be gauged as if they were gas tanks set to either full or empty.
As a boy, Philip Seymour Hoffman had been powerfully drawn to the Christian faith when he began accompanying his sister to meetings of her evangelical youth group. Early in rehearsals, he described his image of Jesus as someone who would “cause havoc,” if he were around today. And he was blunt about what he was hoping to accomplish as a director. “I wanted people to see Christ the way I saw him, said Phil. I wanted them to see a Christ who fought for people with desperate conviction. And I wanted him to be real and tough and exciting!”
Acting Like Saints
Many in the cast, however, were still forming their ideas of Christ, Christianity and Christian heroes. Liza Colón-Zayas, for example, found her role as Mother Teresa a challenge, particularly since she describes herself as pro-choice. In the play, the beatified nun is called upon to speak on the subject of despair, central for a play about Judas.
“I went into the role thinking that Mother Teresa was like this pure spirit or something,” said Liza one night over dinner. “But I learned from my reading and our discussions that she was human, and while she had these opinions that I strongly disagreed with, I could really respect her for her work with the poor. Look, if I cared for thousands and thousands of dying people, I should be able to say what I want about anything!”
While still a teenager in the Bronx, Liza had joined a fundamentalist Christian cult called the Church of Bible Understanding, before leaving it a year later. “Stephen’s play helped me to see that it’s okay to question things. Everything used to seem so conditional when it came to God’s love, but now I think that with God things are unconditional. Like, when I was in that cult, I used to think of Jesus as like a parole officer!”
I laughed when I heard her analogy. I had never heard it put that way. “No, really!” she said, laughing. “Now I know that you can be a [screw-up] and Jesus will still be there for you. And I don’t really fear death anymore, like I used to. Now I think it’ll all be good.”
For Elizabeth Rodriguez, who played St. Monica, the fourth-century saint whose persistent prayers were credited with the conversion of her son, St. Augustine, the experience helped her understand the saints. “I never thought of the saints as human,” she said. “They were, you know, saintly,” adding that there seemed a huge distance between their lives and hers. “But reading about St. Monica gave me an insight into the mothering part of her. “You know, I’m not a mother, but when I talk to my girlfriends they tell me that they would do anything for their kids. Monica felt that way about her son.”
The idea of the saints and, by extension, God going to any lengths to reach human beings has a long provenance in Christian theology. The pursuing God is at the heart of many of Jesus parables, including the lost coin and the good shepherd. Francis Thompson’s 19th-century poem “The Hound of Heaven” describes a God who pursues us even as we flee.
The actress’s insight about a mother and her children has even more specific antecedents. In her book She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., points to multiple images of God as mother in both the Old and the New Testaments. Can a woman forget her nursing child? asks the prophet Isaiah. It is a powerful image of the all-embracing love of the mother who will stop at nothing to save her children.
“Monica felt that way about anyone who was treated unjustly,” said Elizabeth Rodriguez.
Of course, I was curious about how playing Jesus of Nazareth would affect an actor like John Ortiz, who was also one of the founders of the LAByrinth Theater Company, which had co-produced the play. During the rehearsals John had struggled with finding the right balance between the humanity and divinity of his character. “Playing Jesus helped me to see what it was like to love someone unconditionally, to love someone as they are,” said John. “It also helped me to see how God loves us.”
“During the run I started to feel like my life was beginning to get a little better, too,” he continued. “I was seeing that in relationships, and with myself, and with my career, too. Big changes were starting to happen: I bought a house and accepted a role in a big film. The amazing thing was that I wasn’t freaking out at all and this would have been a good occasion for freaking out! I felt like things were happening for a reason. And I think its because Im more aware of all this stuff. My relationship to God and to Jesus has grown significantly, and its based more on communication, and its more open now, and it’s great to be aware of that. I feel like everything is going to be okay now.”
John’s reflections reminded me of the quote from the 13th-century mystic Blessed Julian of Norwich, the cloistered English nun who experienced revelations, or, in her words, “shewings,” from Jesus. In one vision Jesus tells her, “All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
“Yeah, said John. “It’s just like that.”
Walking Through the Door
For Yul Vázquez, who played the prosecuting attorney in the trial of Judas, the play represented a demystification of the Gospels. “I’ve always thought that Jesus was God,” but I never really had it explained to me.
The theme of despair made a deep impression on Yul. Toward the end of the play, Jesus offers Judas forgiveness, but Judas’s despair prevents him from accepting it. “I’ve had these moments in life where I would wonder what I was doing with my life, said Yul. Once, when I was playing guitar [in a band], I developed this awful tendonitis, and I thought: if I can’t play again, if my career ends, what will I do? But you just have to continue. When Judas despairs and Jesus tries to help him, you can see that it’s just Judas getting in his own way. Jesus wants to help him, but Judas was a victim of his own ego.”
Not surprisingly, the playwright’s perspective on the spiritual life altered during the long process of creating the play. “For one thing,” I pray more now, said Stephen Adly Guirgis, who has tackled religious themes in many of his previous plays. “And I pray more for a willingness to be open. Before I used to pray for results.”
When I asked if he felt differently about his Catholic faith, from which he had sometimes felt estranged, he offered a story that reached back into his childhood. In the sixth grade he was taught by a beloved nun, who used to read a chapter of The Chronicles of Narnia to Stephens class each day as a treat. C. S. Lewis’s tale is both a children’s adventure story and an allegory of Christian themes. “The sister would read it to the class and explain the imagery to us,” said Stephen. At the end of the series, the powerful Christ-like figure of Aslan the lion confronts his vanquished enemy.
“There was this evil prince,” said Stephen, “who all the while had been fighting against Aslan and against the good guys. But when he was finally judged by Aslan, [the prince] was not condemned. And all of Aslan’s followers were pretty upset. But Aslan said that though the evil prince was misguided, he was true to his motives.”
Stephen remembered the time as one when he was struggling with his faith and struggling with the notion of how an all-forgiving God could condemn Judas. “C. S. Lewis’s story taught me that maybe things were more like I think that they are, that God was merciful to everyone, even sinners. I felt like the story had opened a door for me when I was a child. But I didn’t want to walk through it. There was still so much fear.”
“With the play, he said, I feel like I’m starting to walk through the door.”
Talking With Judas
Sam Rockwell, who had played Judas Iscariot, fell silent when I asked about his faith after the play ended. One of the very first things he had told me about during our initial meeting was his lack of any formal religious training. “I wasn’t raised religious and I don’t know anything about religion,” he said in 2004.
“I still don’t know if I believe everything,” said Sam tentatively. “But the play did inform my faith, and I think about Jesus in a different way. I think the message of Jesus is about love and forgiveness, and I feel closer to that; I also feel like I know how to talk about it.”
Then Sam warmed to the topic. “There’s an important message in all those stories we talked about, and his message is still relevant, and it’s still a challenge to the world. Jesus still challenges people. You know, like no one’s better than anyone else, and let the one without sin cast the first stone.” He paused again.
“But, you know, organized religion can be such a nightmare sometimes. Like, what does homophobia have to do with God? What does God have to do with any of that?”
The whole experience of the play was, Sam said, “a religious one.” He laughed as he ticked off some of the more bizarre happenings around the setlike a strange power outage that happened on Easter Sunday. “There was always something, I don’t know, lurking around that play.”
“I guess I know more about Jesus and his message,” said Sam, by way of summing up. “But I just hope I don’t fake it, or take it for granted now, because during these last few months there was this feeling in me, this feeling that I had just a little more faith.”