Laura Ballan-Kohn (Andrea Irwin), Fr. Gabriel Mejia (Evan Walsh) and Megan Gutierrez (Gillian Reed) witness Cardinal Matias Iglesias (Thomas O’Neill, kneeling) confronting his past in Omission. Photo courtesy Alumnae Theatre by Bruce Peters

Playwright presents the Catholic Church, world in human terms

By 
  • January 29, 2018
How much truth does it take to really set us free? A young journalist, a Latin American cardinal and the ghosts of his past set out to answer this difficult question about sin and redemption on the eve of a conclave that could well see the cardinal elected pope in the new play Omission.

Omission, however, is not really about the Catholic Church, insists playwright Alice Abracen.

The play had its world premiere on Jan. 19 as part of the 100th season of Toronto’s Alumnae Theatre. It continues to Feb. 3, including a pay-what-you-can performance on Jan. 31 at the Berkeley Street Theatre.

“It’s more about how someone who has been compromised tries to redeem himself,” Abracen told The Catholic Register. “And the perils and virtues of giving them that chance when it’s against your instincts, when it’s against your sense of injustice. How do we find ourselves when we are placed in morally ambiguous areas, and how do we kind of claw our way through to the other side?”

For a play that draws inspiration from Pope Francis, and references Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez, liberation theology and the martyrdoms of Fr. Rutilio Grande and Archbishop Oscar Romero, the idea that it’s not really about the Church is remarkable. But Abracen is a remarkable playwright.

Abracen was raised Jewish, though her mother was raised Catholic and her grandmother was devout. In the 1980s Abracen’s mother worked with Salvadoran refugees in Honduras and was steeped in the fervour and controversies of liberation theology. Abracen became fascinated with the subject when she was in high school in Montreal and curious about how this thinking applied to her own religious tradition. She wrote Omission in 2015 at age 22 as part of her senior thesis at Harvard University.

Like many women of her generation, the image of the Catholic Church Abracen grew up with was never about mercy, hope or redemption.

“I had friends who would tell me that because of organized religion’s role in, among other things, the oppression of women, there was no hope for such institutions to really affect positive political change,” Abracen said. “They were too tainted.”

Developing a play to explore the issue allowed Abracen to present a world and a Church in human terms.

“You have to humanize an issue, which of necessity complicates an issue,” she said.

The entire play is presented in the context of a confession — not quite a sacramental confession, but a deep and searching moral inventory. Though Abracen would rather not think of the play as being about the Church, the history it presents from the Holocaust through the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s through the 1990s can’t help but present the Church as deeply embedded in the human and political struggles against evil over the last century.

Abracen does admit to being inspired by Pope Francis’ election in 2013.

“Part of the inspiration was the new questions that were being raised by Pope Francis’ actions about shifts in the Church and stances toward certain issues. There was a great sense of excitement,” she said. “You know, a lot of my friends who felt previously alienated thought that maybe there was a new kind of voice.”

Liberating the Church from its image as “this hated, patriarchal institution and something that tended to ally itself with the oppressor,” allowed Abracen to pose a different set of questions.

“How could a man like Peter be our first pope?” asks the fictional Cardinal Matias Iglesias (played by Thomas O’Neill). A Church made up of sinners and for sinners is a new idea for journalist Megan Gutierrez (played by Gillian Reed).

There are no easy answers, no cheap forgiveness for the cowardice Iglesias shows in the face of a truly evil military junta which rapes, tortures and kills his Jewish friend, Laura Ballan-Kohn (played by Andrea Irwin), the daughter of Holocaust survivors. But even her persecutor, General Angelo Flores (played by Lawrence Aronovitch) is not a mustache-twirling bad guy, easy to hate and easy to blame.

“These questions of past injustice and how do you right your wrongs, these are individual questions. These are human questions. These are questions that affect every institution and every country,” Abracen said.

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