Richard O’Callaghan (left) and Kevin Colson in “The Last Confession”
Richard O’Callaghan (left) and Kevin Colson in “The Last Confession”
© Center Theatre Group. Photo by Craig Schwartz

The Last Confession, LA

The latest in a series of works about the mysterious death of Pope John Paul I, this drama presents the back story in a compelling new way.

By Roger Crane

Directed by Jonathan Church

Ahmanson Theatre, Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles

June 7 – July 6, 2014

Wal-Mart? A mom-and-pop corner store, despite its 2.1 million employees worldwide. Bank of America? A payday loan business, despite its $115 billion in assets. Chicago? A shining city on the hill, despite its long and well-earned history of municipal corruption and scandals.

That’s what these organizations are when compared (with some exaggeration) to the Roman Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion adherents worldwide, its wheeler-dealer Vatican Bank, and its own suite of scandals including pedophilia, money laundering and exorbitant self-indulgence.

At the center of the Church is the Curia (the word means “court,” as used to describe a king’s inner circle of counselors), a spider web of councils, congregations, commissions, academies, tribunals, offices and agencies. It’s the Church’s operational command post and is supposedly run by the pope. The reality, however, is that it’s too large and too complex for any one individual and so it’s run by a secretary of state and a bureaucracy of cardinals assisted by staffs of several thousand clergy and civilian employees.

All in the service of God, of course, except when it’s not.

Therein lies the crux of “The Last Confession.” Written by Roger Crane, the play is based on the true story of Cardinal Albino Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) – elected as Pope John Paul I on August 26, 1978, and carried out of Vatican City by a mortuary team on September 28, 1978, a span of just 33 days. Not only did John Paul I die, but he died under suspicious circumstances. So suspicious, in fact, that Cardinal Giovanni Benelli (David Suchet) regards his friend’s death as Agatha Chritie’s fictional Belgian detective Hercule Poirot might have done so in any of her 66 novels: possibly murder. Much like the current Pope Francis, John-Paul I was a modest priest, a humble man, a conscientious pope, who saw widespread poverty and misery everywhere and committed himself to changing it for the better. Callaghan dresses the man with these virtues as beautifully as costume designer Fotini Dimou dresses him physically with cassocks, chasubles, sashes and artifacts.

For all the power and authority inherent in the papacy, however, John-Paul I soon discovers that while the pope proposes, the Curia disposes. This doesn’t surprise Benelli, a veteran Vatican insider who brokered Luciani’s election to the papacy and is now intent on helping his friend to institute reforms.

But reformation dies aborning when John-Paul I fires Archbishop Paul Marcinkus (Stuart Milligan), president of the Vatican Bank, and Cardinal Jean-Marie Villot (Nigel Bennett), the Vatican’s secretary of state. Both men are stunned by the pope’s decision but so sure are they of the power they have acquired over the years that they basically tell the pope to pound sand.

The first act of “Last Confession” is largely given over to the back stories of the pope, Benelli, Marcinkus, Villot, such powerful, super-conservative Curia officials as Cardinals Sebastiano Baggio (Kevin Colson), Pericle Felici (John O’May), Alfredo Ottaviani (Bernard Lloyd), Leo Suenens (Peter Harding), Bernardin Gantin (Roy Lewis), Aloisio Lorscheider (George Spartels) and, of course, the Curia itself. The second act almost sprints as Benelli, like some avenging angel, picks apart the misleading accounts of the Pope’s demise put forth by Cardinal Villot and his aide, Monsignor Magee (David Ferry).

William Dudley’s set is subtle, but very iconic. Some eight sections of 10-feet tall ornamental iron fencing, of the kind used to close off side chapels in a cathedral, are moved to create walls or cells. To me, the fencing is a metaphor for the Church’s impulse to keep some internal matters securely inside itself and sometimes to prevent any external matter from entering. Books have been written about John-Paul I’s mysterious death and Cardinal Villot’s possible hand in it. Now, this play. It’s worth seeing “Last Confession” and drawing your own conclusion.

George Alexander