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“Is this the Margaret Truman thing?” asked the other half (a proud Philistine) as we walked into the theater.

Well, no.

Miss Truman’s Murder at the National Cathedral is a detective novel set in 20th-century Washington. If it resembles her most recent work, Murder at the National Gallery, it is peopled with unlikely characters who speak in thunderingly banal exchanges of pseudo-sophisticated dialogue and have nothing whatever to say about the human condition.

T.S. Eliot’s magnificently lyrical history (or is that mystery?) play, on the other hand, unfolds in 12th-century England, where former chancellor Thomas Becket, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry II to help subdue the Roman Catholic Church, has unexpectedly turned into a man of conscience, a defender of the Church’s prerogatives, and a hero of the people. Once a consummate politician and man of the world, Becket is now “more priestly than the priests”—and a major thorn in the royal side. Facing the very real possibility of death at the hands of the king’s ruthless political backers, he considers the implications, both political and spiritual, of martyrdom—and in some of this century’s most impassioned poetry gives anguished attention to the motivations that drive him toward it. Murder in the Cathedral is without question one of the great religious dramas, a deeply moving argument about the transfigurative power of faith, and the Washington Stage Guild’s sensitive, intelligent production mines Eliot’s elegant poetry for all its considerable power.

The historical Thomas Becket, of course, was eventually martyred, killed in his cathedral by noblemen who heard the king ask, in a fit of exasperation, “Will no one rid me of this meddling priest?” Becket’s was a political assassination that became for the people a religious touchstone, and he was canonized in 1173. His was the tomb to which Chaucer’s pilgrims journeyed in The Canterbury Tales; it was demolished by Henry VIII, who understandably didn’t like the reminder it offered of a stubbornly independent church.

Eliot’s Becket is based on the man of history, though the playwright isn’t so much interested in telling a dramatic story as in drawing for his audience a portrait of the soul of a saint. We see him only in the last few days of his life, and we hear about his clashes with the king mainly from his brother priests and from his enemies (even after his death, when the knights who do him in abandon poetical language and assume modern argot to offer a wryly funny and highly Jesuitical case for their actions).

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At Washington Stage Guild, Alan Wade plays Becket with a calm, quiet dignity and an unpretentious humility that helps make his goodness easier to take (and his inevitable wavering all the more painful); he couldn’t be more fatherly, more humane, or more reassuring. Eliot wrote Becket as a towering figure, infinitely wiser and more perceptive than the men surrounding him; the text offers several pointed comparisons between Becket’s martyrdom and Christ’s own sacrifice, as well as faint echoes of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes (Hamlet, in particular, is evoked by the parallels between Claudius’ wedding speech and Becket’s sermon about rejoicing and mourning at once on Christmas Day). Wade does a beautiful job of making this nearly superhuman character believably human, and yet still so much more spiritually aware than the others as to be a figure of awe.

Among the iconic Tempters who try to seduce the archbishop into cooperating with the king, Bill Delaney (now acting under the name Delaney Williams for guild reasons) is deliciously thuggish as he urges Becket toward sedition; John Benoit (the anguished soldier in Actors’ Theatre’s recent Sticks and Bones) is perhaps too intense here as he asks Becket to assume the chancellorship again; Morgan Duncan is appropriately smarmy but a little too “theatrical” as one who comes offering the pleasures of the flesh. Most remarkable is Conrad Feininger, who might, if you’re not thinking clearly, seem to be an agent sent direct from the devil.

This last tempter plays to Becket’s chief remaining weakness: his pride. All the other temptations have been trifles; when Feininger describes the earthly and heavenly glory that awaits a martyr, though, Wade lets us see Becket tremble with longing.

But wait: This tempter also reminds Becket that he’s as mortal as the next man, and that faith and trust in God are as much a requirement for him as for any. He throws Becket’s own words back at him—”You know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer”—words that Eliot gave Becket to help set him apart from the other, lesser characters.

So he’s the personification of Becket’s conscience, maybe—though it’s possible, if you believe in angels and miracles, to see him as some heavenly agent sent to bolster the archbishop’s resolve and purify his motives. He helps Becket see and avoid the trap of self-serving sacrifice—”the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” Feininger handles the part with assurance, with a splendid relish for the cadences of Eliot’s verse and with a mysterious, gentle air of compassion.

Stage Guild director Bill Largess does remarkably interesting things with a play that’s a stunner in its own right. For instance, where Eliot employs a monolithic Chorus of Canterbury women, unspecified in number, to reinforce the temporal implications of Becket’s spiritual dilemma for each individual in his sphere, Largess uses four women, each with a distinct personality. (There are four Tempters and four murderous knights, as well; balance and numerical symbolism is everything in religious drama. But I digress.)

Largess divides the Chorus’ lines among his four women, heightening the immediacy of their fears and hopes and underscoring the idea that every act (or failure to act) has consequences at undreamed-of levels. It’s an interesting device for another reason: Eliot may or may not have intended for the choruses to sound like a congregation participating in a Mass, but when one woman speaks and three respond, that’s how it comes across—and Largess reinforces the impression at times by moving his women around the stage as though they’re celebrating the Eucharist or making the Stations of the Cross. It’s audacious and intelligent, an entirely successful directorial choice.

It works in large part because the actors Largess has cast as the women are up to Eliot’s demands. The playwright asks the Chorus to speak in a richly metaphorical poetic language that reaches epic scale after Becket’s murder: “Clear the air! Clean the sky! Wash the wind! Take stone from stone and wash them,” they mourn. “The land is foul…I wander in a land of dry stones: If I touch them they bleed. How how can I ever return to the soft quiet seasons?” Such imagery is always powerful on the page, but in performance it requires careful handling if it’s not to seem ridiculous; Largess’ four women—Jewell Robinson, Lynn Steinmetz, Laura Giannarelli, and Joy Jones—deliver it beautifully, with a tone of mixed horror, resignation, rage, and keen grief.

One last thought: Largess sees Eliot’s exploration of the murky territory at the border of self-interest and selflessness as having a pointed lesson for the cynics among us—those snide, smug creatures so quick to question the sincerity of modern charity, whether it comes from politicos or celebrities or religious figures. Like all great sermons, though, Murder in the Cathedral is more than that. It is both warning and exhortation. It acknowledges that “For every life and every act, consequence of good and evil can be shown.” And it insists that our salvation is in remembering to follow Becket’s example—in examining our conscience and our motives; in understanding the world enough to know that doing the moral thing can leave a mess behind; and in then having the courage to do it anyway. CP