The Testament of Mary
Stirring, triumphant exploration of history’s maternal icon
|Victory Gardens Theater presents|
|The Testament of Mary|
Review by Lauren Whalen
One-person shows are the ultimate challenge. Even for theater, this genre requires a unique form of teamwork: a playwright, director and actor have to figure out how to hold an audience’s attention for an extended period of time, with what essentially amounts to one person talking on stage. That’s it. The Testament of Mary is such a production, and – even more challenging – has controversial subject matter: the mother of Jesus, in the time between his crucifixion and the end of her own life, reflecting on what she saw her son go through that day. Not much is known about Mary at the crucifixion: in fact, the gospel of John is the only one of the four that mentions her presence at all. And especially in such a politically explosive time, material in which a religious icon is presented as a regular, fallible human being are a gamble. Victory Gardens’ Midwest premiere of Colm Tóibín’s play, after an acclaimed Broadway run in 2013, jumps most hurdles with an ease that barely conceals the sheer effort and grit that went into it. And thanks to Dennis Začek’s lovely direction and a mostly on point performance from Linda Reiter, both the ease and the grit are welcome.
Based on Tóibín’s novella of the same name, Testament finds Mary living in exile, 20 years after her son’s horrible and public slaying. (Through the hour-plus play, she never mentions her son by name. It’s too painful.) She’s been approached by two disciples who want to hear her story and record it for posterity. Mary, however, is still scarred from what she saw, and remains unconvinced that her son’s death has changed or will change the world in any way. With anger and grief, the woman who would become an iconic figure of motherhood takes us through the events leading up to the crucifixion, what she witnessed, how she felt and ultimately, her regret that her warnings to her son were ignored, that he continued to preach and work supposed miracles with utter abandon, without heeding the danger that would profoundly affect them both.
Tough subject matter, to say the least: I was raised Catholic and after many years of grappling with faith and doctrine, still struggle with religious-themed material, however progressive it may be. Fortunately, Tóibín’s explosive, arresting script is compelling from beginning to end. Sure, hardcore Christians may not appreciate it, but I doubt that’s the audience he was writing for anyway. For anyone who’s ever wondered what Jesus’ mother felt like, watching her son’s brutal murder at the hands of a corrupt government, this script is ultimately very rewarding. Chock full of hideously gorgeous imagery and deep sadness, Tóibín’s writing challenges the audience member to probe the concepts of grief, anger and faith.
Začek, co-founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of Victory Gardens, aptly demonstrates his directing chops. He’s not afraid to highlight Mary’s rage, which is most impressive considering how even the idea of an angry woman still scares many. However, Mary’s never the screeching harpy of stereotypes: thanks to writer and director, she’s utterly human. She isn’t a character. She’s a person, one who deeply misses her late husband, who found her son’s friends annoying, who fondly remembers watching father and child come back from temple, the love between them simple and clear.
Christopher Ash’s set and projection design effectively straddles grounded and ethereal, the flicker of candles almost ghostlike, the look and sound of water remarkably ephemeral. Michael Rourke’s lighting beautifully accompanies the text, and Andre Pluess’ original music feels like a film score, subtle and not overwhelming.
Of course, Testament wouldn’t be possible without a stellar actress, and Reiter does not disappoint. Though I wish her performance had been a bit more varied – some quieter, more vulnerable shifts in the midst of the intensity – her Mary is so intelligent, so beaten down by life, so enthralling, that my attention never wavered. Indeed, this is a one-person show dream team: Tóibín’s writing, Začek’s direction (supplemented by a stellar production team) and Reiter’s unforgettable interpretation make for a haunting evening. A memorable exploration of the ultimate mother, The Testament of Mary is a triumph.
The Testament of Mary continues through December 14th at Victory Garden’s Začek McVay Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays 4pm and 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $20-$60, and are available by phone (773-871-3000) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at VictoryGardens.org. (Running time: 85 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Courier
Linda Reiter (Mary)
behind the scenes
Dennis Začek (director), Christopher Ash (scenic and projection design), Sarah Jo White (costume design), Michael Rourke (lighting design), Andre Pluess (sound design), Jesse Gafney (properties), Tina Jach (production stage manager), Virginia Fitzgerald, Carol Rosofsky, Bud Lifton (production sponsors), Michael Courier (photos)