Into the Deep End

Loyola Press has just released the new paperback edition of A Jesuit Off-Broadway: Center Stage with Faith, Doubt, Forgiveness and More, and allowed me to offer an excerpt from the first chapter.  The book tells the story of six months working as a "theological consultant" to the LAByrinth Theater Company, during the production of Stephen Adly Guirgis's "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," which premiered in 2004, and since then has been produced around the world.  This excerpt tells of the first invitation to help out with the play, which came from an unlikely call.

Act One: Into the Deep End

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Judas called first. 

In late October, I got a phone call from Sam Rockwell, who had just been cast as the title character.  A polite message was left on my answering machine: I'm an actor who is working on a play about Judas.  Would you be willing to talk with me about him? 

As an associate editor of a Catholic magazine, most my life is taken up not with advising monarchs or examining meteorites, but editing manuscripts, proofreading galleys, writing books and articles, lecturing on spirituality and religion, as well as celebrating Mass and hearing confessions.  And while I am something of a movie buff, I had no experience working with actors, directors or playwrights.  (Unless you count my unfairly forgotten turn as Hugo F. Peabody in Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School's 1978 production of "Bye, Bye Birdie.") 

I wasn't certain what I should expect, particularly with someone of the caliber of Sam Rockwell, who had appeared in several well-received movies, most notably as the lead in "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" in 2002.  Besides roles in "Matchstick Men," "The Green Mile," "Galaxy Quest," and "Charlie's Angels," Sam also starred in a lesser-known indie gems like "Box of Moonlight," where he played an off-the-wall, off-the-grid loner who teaches John Turturro's uptight accountant a thing or two about life.  Would the actor arrive at my Jesuit residence with his handlers?  His posse?  Would fits be pitched if I didn't have his favorite brand of bottled water?

Judas arrived one cold Sunday afternoon, on the last day of October 2004, wearing a nylon sweatsuit and talking on a cell phone.  "Hey man," he said with a broad smile.  "I'm Sam."  When he pulled off his woolen hat his staticky brown hair stood straight up from his head.  A few days growth of reddish beard was explained as part of his look for his new character. 

When we sat down in the musty library of my Jesuit residence community, Sam told me something about his background. 

Both his mother and father were actors, Sam said, and had met while studying at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.  When Sam was five his parents divorced.  Though he remained with his father in California, during the summers he visited his mother in a Latino neighborhood in Harlem.  Years later, that background would make the Labyrinth Theater Company, then a company for Latino actors in New York, a comfortable home.  "I was one of the first gringos they ever accepted," he said.  "Definitely the first Irish-German guy."

Sam got an early start in his profession: he appeared with his mother on stage when he was ten.  After graduating from the San Francisco High School of the Performing Arts, he left for New York, initially boarding with his mother and stepfather.  While still a student in high school, he had won a leading role in a horror movie, a job that gave him the confidence to move east. 

A variety of restaurant jobs, including a stint delivering burritos on a bicycle, enabled the actor to save enough money to move, in his words, "from sublet to sublet" in Brooklyn.  He took almost any job to make ends meet.  "I even was an apprentice to a private investigator," he said with a laugh.

Once settled in New York, Sam began studies with the acting teacher William Esper, a follower of the Sanford Meisner technique, one that emphasizes the importance of paying particular attention to relating to the other actors onstage.  It was there that he would meet several future members of the Labyrinth Theater Company, including Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright of "Judas."  Sam studied with Esper for two years, and began finding more work and landing bigger parts. 

In time he was cast in a few television commercials (Burger King) and found work in a television series ("Law & Order") and began landing some film roles, including a part in the 1982 movie "Last Exit from Brooklyn."  He counts his role in "Box of Moonlight," opposite John Turturro as his big break.  In 1999, he won a Best Actor award at the Montreal Film Festival for his part as a troubled young man in "Lawn Dogs," which led to roles in several more mainstream films.  All told, Sam had been acting for over twenty-five years.

"I like acting because it's cathartic," he said. "When it's at its best it's pretty therapeutic, and even spiritual.  There's a kind of release that comes with it, almost like an exorcism, as you let go of a part of yourself that you've kept locked away." 

"But it's hard, too," he added.  "I have this kind of love-hate relationship with acting.  It gives me a lot of anxiety--all that performing and auditioning and travelling takes a lot out of you.  And the business part of it...well, it's just mind-boggling how crazy that can be sometimes."

If I didn't know what to expect from our meeting, neither did Sam: he didn't know any priests.  Casting about for someone to speak with about his part, he had gotten my phone number from one of his mother's friends, who works at a local Jesuit parish, where I celebrate Mass on Sundays. 

Eventually Sam got around to describing his religious background.  "My grandmother was Irish-Catholic, and used to try to bring me to church, but I used to squirm around and hide under the benches," he explained, somewhat sheepishly.  "I went to Catholic school, too--but just for a month.  I was too rebellious.  So I wasn't raised religious, and I don't know anything about religion."  His exposure to religious topics, to the Bible, and to the story of Jesus, had come almost exclusively from film. 

As for his own faith, he said, "Well, I pray to God when I'm having an anxiety attack or am panicked about a performance.  God's there when I need him, but I'm still not sure if I really believe or not."

Both of us, it appeared, were on unfamiliar territory: I with theater and Sam with religion. 

But religious topics provided enough common ground for a freewheeling conversation that lasted until sunset.  With a small tape recorder Sam had brought placed before me, I launched into a sort of Introduction to Christianity, scribbling notes on stray sheets of paper, summarizing the history of the Hebrew people in the Old Testament, sketching a crude map of Judea in the first century, describing the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, listing the twelve apostles, and outlining how the various Christian denominations had grown apart over the centuries.

Sam followed my mini-lecture attentively, squinting his eyes and cocking his head back when something wasn't clear.  When something made an impression he would stare intently, nod his head and say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah...." 

The actor had already screened several films about Jesus, and was in the process of listening to Gregory Peck narrate the Gospels on tape, and in fact knew more about the Bible than he suspected.  He enjoyed the 1969 musical "Jesus Christ Superstar," in particular for the passionate and very physical performance of Carl Anderson, the actor who played Judas.  "It helped me to see some of Judas's point of view," he said.  But it was "Jesus of Nazareth," the three-hour film directed by Franco Zefferelli in 1979, which still appears regularly around Easter and Christmas on cable television, that was his favorite of all the Jesus films. 

It was my favorite, too. "Jesus of Nazareth," which starred the British actor Robert Powell as Jesus, is the film that, at least for me, most effectively conveys the sweep of the Gospel narratives, with certain scenes imprinting themselves so effectively into my religious consciousness that whenever I hear, for example, the story of the raising of Lazarus, it is not any Renaissance painting or fresco that comes to mind, but Robert Powell, clad in his white robes, standing at the mouth of an open tomb and shouting in a booming voice, "Lazarus...come forth!" 

On the other hand, Zefferelli's film adheres to the cinematic doctrine that while the twelve apostles are to be portrayed as simple men who spoken plainly, Jesus himself must speak with a plummy British accent, as if the Messiah divided his time evenly between Galilee and Oxford.

Sam had a terrific memory for individual scenes from Zefferelli's film.  The gentle way that Jesus treated the adulterous woman, quickly silencing the crowd intent on stoning her, made a marked impression on him.  It was an account that he referred to again and again.  "Even if you forget about the miracles," said Sam, "what Jesus said and what he was trying to do were pretty extraordinary." 

Several months after the play closed, Sam loaned me the tape of our first meeting, and I was surprised to hear how enthusiastic we both were, even at this early stage, frequently interrupting one another with questions and comments and asides.  Both of us were also trying our best to be polite.  Our attempts not to offend one another now seem almost comical: much of our time was taken up by my trying to reassure him that I wasn't aiming to "convert" him, and Sam apologizing for what he felt was his lack of knowledge about the Bible. 

Each answer to a question prompted a digression that led to yet another question.  We jumped from the Book of Genesis to Charlton Heston's performance in "The Ten Commandments," to the origin of the phrase "Doubting Thomas," to Martin Luther and the Reformation, to the rosary, to Saint Peter's betrayal of Jesus, to what a Jesuit priest does, to Mary Magdalene, to Christian fundamentalism, to Mel Gibson's film "The Passion of the Christ," to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and to the contradictory accounts of the resurrection in the gospels.

At one point Sam asked about the Our Father.  When the actor learned that it was a prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples, he asked me to dissect it for him, line by line.  We talked about its underlying structure--beginning with its traditional praise to God, the expression of hope for God's "kingdom," petition for one's daily needs, a desire for forgiveness and an offer of forgiveness for others.  Each phrase provoked more questions from Sam.  For all his lack of formal religious training, some of the actor's queries would challenge even the best theologians.  "I want to go back to something you just said: Thy kingdom come.  Your kingdom come?  Does that mean I'm coming to your kingdom in heaven, or is heaven coming to me?"

Late in the afternoon, to give Sam a flavor of the style of Jesus's preaching, I read aloud some well-known Gospel passages, including the Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit..."  For after we had dipped into random passages from the Bible, we started to focus on what the actor was most interested in for the purposes of the new play: the story of Jesus and Nazareth and the man who had betrayed him.

As it happens, the study of what contemporary theologians term the "historical Jesus" has long been an avocation for me.  This branch of New Testament scholarship uses modern scholarly methods--like archeology, text criticism and research into the social and cultural life of first-century Palestine--to understand Jesus of Nazareth and his circle of disciples.  Almost twenty years ago, when I entered the Jesuit novitiate, I was given a slim book called Jesus Before Christianity, by a Dominican priest named Albert Nolan.  In his book Nolan describes daily life in ancient Galilee, Jewish practices and beliefs at the time of Jesus, and the real-world events that lay behind some of Jesus's most famous stories and parables.  Nolan's fascinating study launched me on a quest to read as much as I could about the "Jesus of history."

The more Sam and I talked, the more enthusiastic I grew about the play.  And happily, the actor proved an open and self-effacing fellow.

Sam was interested in learning everything he could about his character, and I could see how important this kind of preparation was for him.  Almost a year after "Judas" closed he started to research another role--as a fundamentalist Christian who ends up murdering his wife--and asked if I could accompany him to a Pentecostal service in Manhattan.  "What's with all these religious roles I'm getting?" he asked.  But for now Sam would give me a real run for my money with a barrage of questions over the next few months: What was life like for the apostles?  What do we know about Judas Iscariot?  Why did he betray Jesus?  Could Jesus have forgiven him?  Sam's curiosity astounded me. 

When I mentioned this to a Jesuit friend, he said, "Aren't you glad you paid attention in your New Testament classes?"    

Then he paused and said, "What do you know about Judas anyway?"

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