Backstage at Off-Broadway: Jesuit Finds Common Ground with Thespians


Fr. James Martin, SJ (middle), with playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and actor Sam Rockwell (Judas) a few months after the play closed in 2005.

When actor Sam Rockwell was looking to get inside the head of his character, Judas, in an off-Broadway play, he sought out Fr. James Martin, SJ.

From that first meeting with Rockwell to joining the team as theological advisor for six months, Fr. Martin began an open, friendly, and enlightening dialogue with the cast and crew of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot that covered an array of topics about the Catholic religion.

As the author of several books, including My Life with the Saints, and culture editor of America magazine, Fr. Martin was already a well-known spokesperson for all things Catholic in mainstream media. But in discussing both the finer points of Judas’s story as well as more complex theological concepts, Fr. Martin discovered that the secular approach to religion brought new insights to his own faith.

For example, while talking to Rockwell about his character’s motivation, Fr. Martin felt particularly clued in to another realization.

Actors Kohl Sudduth (Butch Honeywell), Sam Rockwell (Judas), John Ortiz (Jesus) in the final scene of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

“One of the explanations we were talking about was that Judas was trying to force Jesus to act, and Sam said, ‘It’s like throwing him into the deep end to see if he can swim.’ Which I thought was great and I used it in a homily the next week and then it found its way into Stephen’s [Adly Guirgis] play. Through our conversation, we came to this great insight and a great way to explain [Judas], which is frankly how I explain him to parishioners.”

During the six-month rehearsal and preparation process, Fr. Martin found himself trying to answer deep and often difficult questions about faith, religion, and spirituality from the cast, director, and playwright, who each had their own varied and wide-ranging backgrounds and relationships with religion. The open and candid dialogue allowed the cast and crew to fully understand their characters and opened new channels for Fr. Martin to think about religion.

Fr. Martin signing copies of his book, A Jesuit Off-Broadway.

"My experience with The Last Days of Judas Iscariot reminded me, once again, of how much our imagination plays a part in our faith,” Fr. Martin said. “Like any God-given gift, our imaginations can be used as a pathway to experiencing God.”

“In the case of Ignatian spirituality, we are invited to imagine ourselves in the Gospel scenes. The playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, and the actors, however, showed me how an artist could imagine Jesus, the apostles, and the saints in new ways, which ‘opened up’ my understanding of who they were in a brand new way. . . . I learned as much about Jesus from them as they did from me."

Fr. James Martin, SJ, with the cast of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

Watch the trailer for A Jesuit Off-Broadway, the book Fr. James Martin, SJ, wrote about his experience: