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NEW YORK – In a pre-show segment before The Testament of Mary gets underway, Fiona Shaw sits in meditative silence in a glass box. Wrapped in a cerulean blue cloak over a coral pink gown, she appears as a familiar depiction of the Virgin – a Bellini or Raphael portrait brought to life. The audience makes a pilgrimage onstage to visit this shrine, stepping around terracotta urns and other props, ancient and modern, that will be used throughout the play. But something appears unsettlingly askew in an image that for centuries has represented piety, humility, serenity and succor for the woes of the world.
Perhaps it’s the troubled intensity with which Shaw mutters unheard words to herself. Or the obsessive agitation with which she turns an apple in her left hand. Or possibly the live vulture perched nearby. In Colm Toibin’s harrowing theatrical monologue, the stoical grace traditionally attributed to this most beloved figure in religious iconography is stripped away by degrees, exposing the raw pain and anger of an unforgiving mother grieving the senseless loss of her son.
A dense, boldly unorthodox piece for risk-averse Broadway, it has been directed with transfixing focus by Deborah Warner, whose frequent collaborations with Shaw go back 25 years. And like their last partnership on Broadway a decade ago with Medea, this play takes a figure from the ancient world, enshrouded in myth, and catapults her into modern times – or more accurately, into all time – as a flesh-and-blood woman.
Toibin published The Testament of Mary as a novella last year to major acclaim, and even by the elevated standards of this uncommonly gifted Irish writer, it’s a work of stunning directness, the austerity of its prose matched by its soul-piercing empathy. The play in its original version predates the book, performed at the 2011 Dublin Theatre Festival.
The stage treatment is different in that, inevitably, it sacrifices the mesmerizing quietness of the first-person narrator’s voice in the novella. On the page, when Mary sifts through events of the past and her own conflicted responses to them, it’s a mournful internalized dialogue. But unlike the intimate relationship between reader and book, theater is a collective experience. It imposes a level of artifice and intellectual distance on the exchange, particularly in Warner’s conceptualized presentation. But the imagination and emotional impact of the narrative remain striking despite that shift.
Both the novel and the play start with the same words: “They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world.” Mary is speaking of her son’s followers, the keepers whose task is to record her recollections of the Crucifixion, the events leading up to it and those that followed. Unable to bring herself to say the name of Jesus, she also is resistant to the disciples’ request for a simple factual account that meets their needs as authors of the Gospel, intent on establishing the martyrdom of the man they call the Son of God.
That conflict is conveyed with lacerating authority by Shaw. Her Mary is haunted, scornful, a hardened skeptic as uncompromisingly judgmental with herself as she is with others. She also has the manic energy of a woman whose refusal of the comforts of sleep – and more pointedly, the healing balm of dreams – has taken her beyond fatigue.
During the course of the play, Shaw tokes compulsively on cigarettes, hauls around vessels of water, restlessly dons and removes clothing, rearranges the sparse furniture or overturns it in a rage, strips naked and plunges into a well as if to wash away the horror Mary has witnessed and her guilt over fleeing the scene of her greatest sorrow. It’s a performance requiring enormous reserves of physical and emotional strength, and Shaw meets its demands with her customary ferocity and intelligence.
Provocative as much of the content is, Toibin is not doing anything so blunt as a revisionist interpretation of the Scriptures. He is undertaking a nuanced psychological exploration of a figure whose nobility is due in part to her eternal silence, rendering her instead here as a woman who will not be silenced.
Mary regards the disciples as weak misfits; the miracles, at least in part, as embellished second-hand accounts; and the crowd of followers that grew as her son’s fame spread as “a carnival with every malcontent and half-crazed soothsayer in its wake.” She sees Jesus as a victim of some kind of cult of celebrity, gazing at her without recognition as she attempts to warn him of the danger to his life. Her account of that interaction, during the Wedding at Cana, is among the play’s more hypnotic episodes.
The drama crescendos with the Crucifixion, powerfully evoked by Warner and Shaw using coils of barbed wire, a ladder, and heavy iron spikes. Irrespective of an audience member’s beliefs, it would seem impossible to be unmoved by the agony of the mother onstage as she relives that cruel loss. In one of Toibin’s most disturbing passages, Mary finds odd comfort in distraction as her eye keeps being drawn to the macabre spectacle of a man feeding live rabbits to a huge predatory bird, its cage littered with their half-dead corpses. Despite the detailed specificity of the events being recounted, there’s a universality to aspects of this play that will connect to anyone who has experienced extreme grief.
Mary’s account of her subsequent flight from Calvary, and of the false solace of a dream that has come to be accepted by the disciples as historical fact, makes the aftermath equally compelling. But the play’s bitter final words on redemption and its cost are its most devastating.
Among Warner’s design collaborators, Ann Roth’s costumes strike a fitting note of stark simplicity, while Tom Pye’s set is both barren and cluttered, dominated by the surreal image of a suspended tree trunk framed against a black rear wall that opens both vertically and horizontally to reveal expanses of white light. Perhaps the most indispensable contributions come from sound designer Mel Mercier, whose brooding ambient underscoring echoes the weight of the words being spoken; and Jennifer Tipton’s tenebrous lighting, creating a world of deep shadow and sudden illumination in perfect synchronization with Toibin’s text.
Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (runs through June 16)
Cast: Fiona Shaw
Director: Deborah Warner
Playwright: Colm Toibin
Set designer: Tom Pye
Costume designer: Ann Roth
Lighting designer: Jennifer Tipton
Music & sound designer: Mel Mercier
Presented by Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Jon B. Platt, Roger Berlind, Broadway Across America, Scott M. Delman, Jean Doumanian, Roy Furman, Stephanie P. McClelland, Sonia Friedman Productions/Tulchin Bartner Productions, The Araca Group, Heni Koenigsberg, Daryl Roth, Eli Bush
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