Stephen Guirgis is working through his Catholicism in successfully theatrical ways, and the modern theatre going is reaping the benefits. In recent years, he has explored faith and the correctional system in "Jesus Hopped the A Train" and "Our Lady of 121st Street", placing his characters in the New York City and the family and church he knows well. In a spare production directed by Brad Akin, Chicago's Steep Theatre Company has mounted Guirgis's most recent riff on contemplations of faith and hope and myth and humanity using figures from biblical mythology.
Selected elements of the set design and some performances are not as stellar as others, but the overall effect of this densely packed production is of a focused contemplation of man's role in the universe, the decision making of Jesus as a man, and those men who followed him during the final years of his life. As the title suggests, the person whose choices become the special (but by no means sole) focus of the play's attention is Judas Iscariot. Whether one knows much about his story as a follower and ultimate traitor to Jesus is not important in understanding this exploration of man's search for meaning, the effects of political oppression, and the roles we all play in each other's condemnation or redemption. In the end, this story is a human one.
The action of the play is set primarily in a courtroom, laid out to fit in the performance space but oddly configured from the audience member's perspective. Scenic designer Haley Powell has provided attorney's tables stage right, judge's bench stage left with the witness "box" downstage, nearest the audience, and the "jury box" upstage center. Such a design pointedly focuses our attention on the jurors (as proxies for ourselves?), yet creates the need to struggle to see some action. On the other hand, toying with audience expectations related to the traditional courtroom layout (i.e. all eyes on the judge, upstage center) leads to a maintained focus on the juror decision makers who are drawn from individuals dwelling in Purgatory and the witnesses, ultimately preparing us nicely for the final speeches. And this layout does leave a playing space downstage, immediately in front of the audience, that is easily used for flashbacks and other 'in one' monologue presentations in this narrow playing space. Sound design by Thomas Dixon is fine and appears to be nuanced (e.g. with street sounds and sounds during one flash back of kids on a playground) but was challenged by the thumping base through the walls from the active bar next door to the Steep Theatre playing space. To their credit, the actors persevered.
The performances are in general strong and true. Special mention is earned by our Jesus (Josh Odor), Saint Monica (Khanisha Foster), the Bailiff (James Allen), and the two attorneys played by Julia Siple and Sergi Bosch. The Judge performance is uneven, yet has several stellar script-provided moments, well delivered. In particular, Judge has a terrific moment delivered like Jack Nicholson's "You can't handle the truth" in the movie "A Few Good Men": "What the hell does Judas Iscariot have to do with my truth?". When pressed by Judas Iscariot's defense attorney, this question animates the play.
The character of Honeywell (Alex Gillmor), one of the Purgatory inhabitants who people the jury created by Guirgis for this courtroom showdown, become our real proxy. This character, this Every Person, is a upright, forthright, ordinary, cap wearing, beer-drinking guy. It is his monologue to the catatonic Judas and the poised Jesus that resolves this play: this man in death considers not about the meaning of life or metaphysical considerations but focuses on concrete and human images of his beloved wife. This scene is delivered in a straightforward simple style, with his cap on, beer can in hand, directly to the catatonic Judas with Jesus staring straight at Judas. At one point a single tear falls from Jesus' eye to provide a simple, powerful, focused dramatic moment. Honeywell finally accepts the fact that he is in Purgatory as he comments on the woman he loved and has left behind. "She was my poem", Honeywell says. "Her and the kids, but mostly her." Sob.
A play about passion and faith and the human condition. An initial structural comparison could be drawn to the movie "Defending Your Life" in which a man played by Albert Brooks finds himself in Purgatory, forced to actively defend the positive and embarrassing moments of his life, in courtroom, defended by Rip Torn (and prosecuted by Lee Grant). That movie, however, is primarily about this one character confronting that situation. "Last Days", on the other hand, is constructed with Judas himself mute throughout the courtroom proceedings (speaking only in flashback scenes), simply and effectively focusing the action on the reactions of others in his life, and others who have roles to play in his defense and prosecution. A stalwart production. An important play.