An excellent staging of a thought-provoking play is the inaugural production of a collaboration between Cats Cradle Theatre and the Jefferson Avenue Mission in Fox Park. Cats Cradle is based in Chicago, but 17 of the 20 artists in this production are local.
The play is The Last Days of Judas Iscariot by Stephen Adly Guirgis. It is set in Purgatory, where an idealistic lawyer seeks a hearing to argue for the release of the title character from his endless suffering.
The doctrine the lawyer is challenging is mentioned in the play, that the only unforgivable sin is despair: that is, thinking one’s sins are too great to be forgiven. No character in history presents a better case for testing this belief than Judas, who betrayed the ultimate source of forgiveness, Jesus, and then hanged himself in despair.
The production concept by director Kristin L. Schoenback and the scenic design by Kara Grimm-Denholm send a powerful message about the subject. The chancel of Jefferson Avenue Mission is monumentally cluttered. The disorder of this outpost of the afterlife suggests that our ideas about the afterlife are just as messy.
The trial explores these ideas with testimony from a mix of renowned and unfamiliar witnesses from eras ranging from the first century to the twentieth and places ranging from Heaven to Hell. No matter who is speaking, the language is contemporary and gritty, so the play addresses modern audiences in their own terms. Interspersed among the testimony are scenes from Judas’s life.
The staging commandeers the pulpit for the judge but does not constrain the action to the area in front of the pews. The lawyers’ stations are about halfway back in the nave. The participants in the trial surrounded the opening night audience and immersed it in the arguments.
The actors turn in uniformly fine performances. Hannah Geisz is a passionate advocate for Judas as his lawyer, Fabiana Cunningham. The opposing counsel, Yusef El-Fayoumy, is a sharp-witted foe in Sam Lyons’ performance.
Charles Heuvelman is as curmudgeonly as they get as the judge, while Molly Perling is the much put upon the bailiff and also plays St. Thomas.
Several actors play multiple parts with distinction. Mike Depope is Sigmund Freud, Caiaphas, and Simon the Zealot. Gregory D. Hicks, St. Matthew, Pontius Pilate, Jesus of Nazareth. Larenzo Allen is St. Peter and Matthias. Ieshah Edwards is St. Monica and Gloria. Carole Ann Miller is Judas’s mother and Mary Magdalene. Every character is represented vividly.
Tim Gouran has a commanding presence in the courtroom as Satan, while Stephanie S. Stroud makes Mother Teresa an equally striking figure in onscreen testimony from a remote site. Joseph Garner is quietly engrossing as a juror on whom the trial has a profound effect. Brandon Ellis projects Judas’s suffering during the trial but makes him a vivid character in flashbacks.
Kudos to Jefferson Avenue Mission and its pastor, Geordie Denholm (the producer of this show), for reaching out to the community with a work of art that digs deep into issues of faith.
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot continues through November 20 at 2241 Jefferson Avenue.
Photo by Nate Rolland