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'SIN' puts spotlight on small theater

Regent hosts play about clergy abuse

It is undeniably a difficult time for Boston-area Roman Catholics, but the people behind a provocative play that focuses on the pattern of sexual abuse by priests say their work may help ease some of that pain.

Beginning Wednesday, the documentary-style play "SIN: A Cardinal Deposed," will be performed at the Regent Theatre in Arlington.

The play examines the legal side of the sexual-abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic church in Boston. The dialogue comes directly out of depositions that were part of the lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Boston stemming from the abuse.

Hosting this type of emotionally charged production, which is capturing national media attention, is new for the Regent. Leland Stein, the Regent's marketing director, said he and other staff members come from musical backgrounds, and this downtown Arlington venue hosts mostly concerts. Until now, that is.

This week, the theater's staff will host the actors who performed in the original production in Chicago and will appear in Arlington, key players in Boston's sex-abuse scandal, and national news outlets that include ABC Television.

"Our hosting of this remarkable production provides a rare opportunity for those of us at the Regent to actually affect people's lives in a positive way, not just by providing the forum for art of an exceptional quality -- but by helping, in a small way, the healing process," Stein wrote in a recent e-mail.

As grim as the context sounds, those involved say the play is uplifting.

"The experience has been so overwhelmingly positive for us," said Mark Steel, an actor in the play and manager of the Bailiwick Repertory, the Chicago-based theater company that is bringing the play to Arlington.

"Even people who are still staunch supporters of the Catholic Church told us that this wasn't a negative slant," he said. "It's not Catholic bashing. . . . the show presents the facts, the actual words of people who went through these events."

Still, the performances begin as emotions are running high. Two weeks ago, the Archdiocese of Boston announced that 65 churches -- including two in Arlington -- will be closing. Though the archdiocese has said the closings are due to a shortage of priests, the movement of Catholics from cities to the suburbs, and a decline in parishioners and their contributions, many Catholics blame the closings on the archdiocese's management of abusive priests.

For years, the archdiocese moved known sexual abusers from one parish to another, creating more victims, and did not remove such priests. When the scandal became public, Catholics around the world began reporting experiences of sexual abuse by priests.

Playwright Michael Murphy said that when he heard what was happening in Boston, "I was interested and horrified at the same time." On The Boston Globe's website, he found a link to the scandal. There, he found transcripts of the court depositions.

"It is the miracle of the information age," he said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles last week. "I had access to information that I normally wouldn't have had."

He started reading, he recalled, "and I couldn't put them down. I kept wondering, 'How did this happen?' . . . . I felt, at the end of it, that I had an understanding, and putting this in a play would make it accessible."

He said that most victims of sexual abuse aren't believed when they reveal the abuse, but putting their stories in play form could change that. "In a play, people suspend disbelief," he said.

During the play's highly successful run in a tiny theater in Chicago, a former student of one of the actors tried to bring it to Wellesley College's theater. It was supposed to have been performed there this May, but the deal fell through soon after it was announced. But by then, Steel said, the Bailiwick had its heart set on performing in the Boston area.

They searched for theaters with about 500 seats, which would retain intimacy while accommodating enough people to make the venture financially viable. They narrowed down their choice to the Regent and a similarly sized theater in downtown Boston.

The Regent won out because its officials were more enthusiastic and showed a greater understanding of the play's mission, Steel said. "They have never seen the show, and yet they have felt as strongly about its success as we have. It was a perfect fit," he said.

Now, the Regent is on the map like never before. Tickets sales are brisk; media attention is intense; and expectations are high.

Steel said that after performances in Chicago, people who had been sexually abused by priests began discussing the play in post-show discussions that Steel calls "talkbacks." "[They] became almost the third act of the show," he said. The discussions will continue here, and Steel said there's a very good chance that someone whose testimony is part of the play will be in the audience. The theater company has asked people from organizations that deal with such trauma to be on hand.

"We have not yet had such a strong reaction that we weren't able to console the person right there, but we are aware that there is potential for that to happen in Boston," he said.

Therapists also will be present when the Regent hosts a special benefit performance on June 14. That evening, the Bailiwick hopes to raise money for three clergy-abuse victim groups. After the performance, there will be a discussion with Murphy, the play's director and cast, representatives from Voice of the Faithful, a group of lay Catholics that formed in response to the sex-abuse scandal, and some of the people whose depositions are heard in the play.

But one of the most well-known and outspoken victims won't be there. Patrick McSorley died in February, after a long struggle with drugs. His testimony marks the end of the play.

Murphy is donating all his royalties from the Boston performances to the Patrick and Joanne McSorley Fund, to help pay for the education of Patrick's son, Patrick Jr., and stepdaughter, Joanne.

Christine McConville's e-mail is cmcconville@globe.com.

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