BWW Reviews: Roger Crane's THE LAST CONFESSION Stops at Ahmanson on International Tour
In the history of the Roman Catholic Church, one papal election curiously stood apart. After Pope Paul's death in 1978, a compromise pope was elected, Albino Luciani, who named himself Pope John Paul I. His reign lasted a mere 33 days when, in apparent good health, he died suddenly, creating the suspicion of murder. The Last Confession by Roger Crane explores this time period in Roman Catholic history with a keen eye for details and propelling fine dramatic exchanges. Headed by resourceful actor David Suchet as Cardinal Giovanni Benelli, the cast, mostly from England, is a sturdy lot, and most likely only those repulsed by religion and/or politics will find the action less than intriguing, through July 6 only.
The issue most raised by the cardinals in the play: Divine Providence and human intervention. Where do you draw the line? Well, quite honestly, through the years tradition has won out, meaning little has changed; what was begun in 1962 by the Vatican Council to re-examine doctrine and its practicality to human issues has not yielded significant results. Human intervention - searching for ways to save men's souls - has been and continues to be fruitless, a fact that Roger Crane supports in making Benelli burn his confession at play's end. He was outnumbered by greed and power, so his cause hit a brick wall. Benelli himself was power hungry: he vied for the Papal office. In fact, he ignored Pope John Paul, whom he had helped to become Pope, because he desired a promotion. In the process, he also lost his faith. So neither was he what one would call a saint. His suspicions of murder and quest for the truth, however, did drive him forward with a some degree of integrity... until the Cardinals offered him a chance as their prime candidate for Papal replacement. Deceit, greed for power and money have become synonymous with the Vatican; it is no small wonder when man turns his back on the Church, seeing it as another corrupt corporation. All the while these men, who call themselves priests, excuse their actions as the will of God. As far as assisting third world countries, they hypocritically assert (or are they truly blind?): "The Church has no place in politics". What a laugh!
Crane does not spare any humor in The Last Confession. When the new Pope calls the coffee bad, a nun assisting him insists that a new coffee maker has made it better. The Pope tastes it, agrees and declares "Perhaps the Vatican can change after all!" Sister Vincenza (Sheila Ferris), the only female cast member among 19 men, says quite matter of factly, "A nun's way to Heaven is on her knees!" Scrubbing and cleaning, of course, but another issue within the Church: women will never become priests. During the Cardinals' investigation into the possibility of murder one of them quibbles "God help us if we are ever sick!" The truth makes us laugh, as humor abounds especially in Act II where the pacing picks up and the plays gains momentum.
No pun intended but the cast is heaven sent. Suchet is a perfect choice for Benelli, as it is hard to see anything vile within his nature. He plays it out earnestly and forthright all the way. A standout is Richard O'Callaghan as Cardinal Albino Luciani. The papacy is literally thrust upon Luciani, and he really tries quite diligently to bring humanity to the position, supporting birth control and first of all, throwing out all the pomp and circumstance, stating " I am a priest, not a king!" O'Callaghan is wondrous in his simplistic interpretation of the befuddled and compassionate ordinary man. Praise as well to Sam Parks, Philip Craig, Nigel Bennett, Stuart Milligan, Donald Douglas and John O'May and the rest of the ensemble, evenly directed by Jonathan Church, who maintain dramatic tension.
William Dudley's set design is dark, foreboding and oppressive with humongous gates that sometimes make the cathedral walls seem like a dungeon, a prison....certainly not the most comfortable place to be. Kudos as well to Peter Mumford for his effective lighting design and to Fotini Dimou for costuming.
If religion is not your tea cup, then stay away! But there is enough humor and intellectual stimulation in Crane's writing to make The Last Confession worthy of a visit. You will be assuredly entertained and maybe even a bit provoked.