Guest contributor Lindsay B. Davis reviews a captivating interpretation of the most famous mother of them all (besides Joan Crawford).
Theater is at its finest during The Testament of Mary, a new play by Colm Toibin, starring the robust and regal Irish actress, Fiona Shaw. Adapted from what was originally a short play in Dublin and then a critically acclaimed novella, the work in its most current form at the Walter Kerr Theater is a bold imagining of a period following Jesus’ crucifixion — told entirely from the viewpoint of the Virgin Mary. Deborah Warner’s emboldened direction pushes artistic boundaries and tests where modern audiences are willing to go in their understanding of and compassion for the religious icon. In other words, this is not your Father’s Virgin.
Testament’s Mary may start ensconced in a glass case surrounded by lit candles (the audience is allowed on stage to gaze at Shaw, whose mumblings can be seen but not heard) but once the curtain drops and rises again, Mother Mary is free to have a cigarette, drink booze straight from the bottle, thrash about and do whatever else is necessary to cope with her grief. And that she does in what looks like it could be a large, downtown warehouse apartment full of found art. Her only counterpart on stage is a vulture whose purpose is wholly metaphorical. Sound a little out there? It is, but this juxtaposition of the modern and the age-old is gripping.
Flexing her masterful storytelling muscles and using her real ones (there is a good deal of physical work involved to establish and advance the story), Shaw delivers a performance that is so visceral, skillful and raw that the 85 minutes performed without an intermission sprint by in a flash. It is a journey marked by incidents in the life of her son, some based on actual Biblical stories — such as when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, healed the sick or turned water into wine, plus the crucifixion itself — and others completely imagined by the author. All manage to illuminate the mother not the messiah. She speaks not to advance the narrative of Christianity but to deeply reveal herself and come to terms with traumatic experience. As an audience it is impossible not to feel her deep torment and fight for survival.
Toibin’s writing at times feels poetic but even when at its most literary, is still urgent. Whether it’s a word or a wince or a chuckle, you can feel the meaning behind Mary’s utterances, not unlike when Shakespeare is performed well (as it has been by Shaw, whose credits include Taming of the Shrew, Richard II and As You Like It). In less capable hands, Testament could go over the heads of some theatergoers and perhaps Shaw’s guttural rants and bouts of intense emotion will uncomfortably strike some as melodrama, though not likely. Her performance history also includes the Tony-nominated Medea as well as T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland (also directed by Warner) and at this point in Shaw’s career there is only excellence to behold.
Perhaps because I saw the production less than a week after the Boston marathon bombings, as I listened to descriptions of a young man maimed to death by nails on a slab of wood and heard the word “terror” spoken, its echo bouncing off the theater’s walls, I found myself thinking of every mother from antiquity to today who has grieved the terrible injury or death of a child. It is a certain kind of grief, riddled with anger, which leads one to try and rid oneself of the emotion by finding someone, anyone, who will listen. In a recent interview, Shaw told NPR of the loneliness she feels on stage while performing this role. Toibin gives the Virgin Mary an audience and in doing so, effectively rescues her from her from a sentence of silence and solitude.
The sound (Mel Mercier), lighting (Jennifer Tipton) and set design (Tom Pye) are a seamless extension of Warner’s vision, creating a dance that moves fluidly to the music of the text. All in all, Testament of Mary is a testament to the collective imagination of a few very talented theater artists and one of the best works of the season.
The Testament of Mary
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th Street
Lindsay B. Davis is an arts/culture journalist, actress, playwright and director. She resides in New York City.