Martin Luther on Trial

by John Stoltenberg

Martin Luther on Trial, the new play by Chris Cragin-Day and Max McLean that had its world premiere in DC at the Lansburgh Theatre, joins the canon of great theatrical works about major figures in religion. It easily compares to Archibald Macleish’s J.B. about the biblical Job, T.S. Eliot‘s Murder in the Cathedral about Archbishop Thomas Becket, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. Like those formidable forerunners, Martin Luther on Trial wrestles dramatically with heady matters of faith and ethics, of God and conscience—that deep and serious stuff that arises in us as a species hardwired for both belief and doubt. But this play goes them one better: Martin Luther on Trial is quite the divine comedy and it’s funny as hell.

The play imagines the rad Reformation-rouser as defendant in an afterlife courtroom somewhere between heaven and hell. The Devil is prosecutor, St. Peter is judge, and Katie, Luther’s devoted wife, is his defender. The issue at trial is whether Luther committed the unpardonable sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The Devil, who holds a humongous grudge against Luther, is dead set on proving his guilt so that Luther will be sent to eternal damnation. That inciting premise, which may seem arcane to some, builds terrific trial-procedural scaffolding on which the play mounts its spellbinding storytelling.

Katie and The Devil each call and cross-examine a mind-bending cross-historical roster of witnesses. Among them are Hitler, through whom the play tackles head-on Luther’s antisemitism; Martin Luther King Jr., who honors his namesake’s advocacy for the oppressed; Freud, who analyzes Luther’s relation to his brutal earthy father; and Pope Francis, who looks back approvingly on Luther’s critique of papal power mongering. Their testimonies bristle with wit and revelations and laugh-out-loud one liners. Interspersed are vivid vignettes from Luther’s bio—including agonizing crises of faith and humanizing homespun scenes from Martin and Katie’s unconventional courtship and marriage. What emerges is a fascinating, dynamic, and complex portrait of the man whose schismatic reading of Scripture changed history.

The character of Katie is written with a very modern independence of mind and disarming depth. In standing up to both the Devil (for his overweening arrogance) and her own husband (for his vile views about Jews), Katie is the moral center of the play. In a recent interview, Playwright Cragin-Day shared this insight about why:

Katie was my way into this story. I could understand why she would love this man, why she would be excited by his teachings, inspired by his courage, and also disappointed in his failings. She was an incredibly strong, brave, intelligent woman in her own right. And she took a lot of criticism for it by Luther’s peers. But Luther loved Katie’s stubbornness and confidence….Once I gave myself permission to put myself into Katie, the writing came easily.

Cragin-Day’s identification with the character and Kersti Bryan’s beautiful performance in the role had the audience emotionally on Katie’s side from the get-go. And therein lies this remarkable play’s most remarkable quality.

The character of The Devil as written calls for snarky histrionics that Paul Schoeffler handles hilariously.  To rub in the charge of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, the script has the Devil explicate it—in a withering and crude condemnation concerning Luther’s burning of the bull of excommunication that was his sentence in his earthly trial:

DEVIL: The bull of excommunication had all the authority of the Pope behind it. God’s representation on earth. Luther believed that, didn’t he?
KATIE: Yes, but—
DEVIL: Then, there’s no other way to interpret that action except: Luther gave God the finger.
KATIE: He didn’t!
DEVIL: And that’s really what the unforgivable sin is, isn’t it? Telling the Holy Spirit to go piss off. Telling God, “I don’t need you. I don’t need your love. I don’t need your salvation, so you can shove it up your ass.” That’s the thing you can’t do. The thing that God really doesn’t allow….. Luther committed the unforgivable sin, and I say bra-vo.

Schoeffler’s scene-stealing scenery chewing is theatrical heaven. And when near the end the Devil blows his satanic stack…well, it would be a spoiler to say more.

The character of St. Peter has the thankless task of keeping the Devil in check and arbitrating the sometimes tempestuous proceedings. It’s a fantastical setup and John Michalski brings to the role a wizened warmth that makes the part and the make-believe goings-on seem completely convincing.

The play portrays Luther in early-1500s episodes from when he was an idealistic young man becoming a monk to when he defiantly nailed his dissident theses to the cathedral door to when he declined into depression in his last years. Fletcher McTaggart’s compelling performance in these biographical glimpses captures each naturalistic nuance and epic passion in a way that scales the character’s convictions and contradictions to Shakespearean dimensions. The scene when Luther comes upon the concept of grace and falls to his knees humbled and overcome was as powerful an epiphany as I’ve seen played onstage.

Two more actors in the cast play ten other characters, literally and figuratively with distinction. Mark Boyett’s turns as Hitler, Freud, Pope Francis, and others are memorable and unmistakable. Leopold Lowe is equally impressive as Dr. King, Michael the Archangel, and others.

Director Michael Parva has overseen a magnificent production. Set Designer Kelly James Tighe locates the story against a tryptic of ecclesiastic arches surrounding a gateway to the beyond. Three modern tables and clear-plastic chairs are in place for Katie, the Devil, and the witness; and downstage are a wooden table and stools representing Luther’s era. Reaching floor to fly space is a stack of books that represent in Act One all the biographies about Luther that The Devil has been hoarding and in Act Two the collected works of Luther himself, which in his heresy trial he famously refused to recant. Lighting Designer Geroffrey D. Fishburn brings dramatic clarity to these multiple spaces and time zones. Costume Designer Nicole Wee creates each character’s wardrobe with historicity and specificity. And Sound Designer Quentin Chiappetta brackets the show with two renderings of Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”: a folk version before and a choral version after. It is a mighty metaphor for how Luther’s populist, anti-papist, and person-centered faith eventually found voice in its own church polities and institutions.

Martin Luther on Trial not only belongs among the great plays about major figures in religion. Martin Luther on Trial sets a new standard for great plays about a great man that look at his character through the clear eyes and incisive conscience of a great woman character.

Do I hear an amen?

Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.

Martin Luther on Trial plays through May 8, 2016, at Fellowship for  Performing Arts performing at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre – 450 7th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the Shakespeare Theatre Company Box Office at (202) 547-1122, or purchase them online.

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