04/28/2013 09:50 am ET | Updated Jun 28, 2013

The Testament of Mary: Blasphemy or Blessing?


Eerie music plays as theater-goers enter the doors of the Walter Kerr Theater on West 48th Street in New York City. One senses immediately that this theatrical experience will be like none other. After all, how many plays start with the audience literally inhabiting the stage that soon they will be watching?

As we are invited to circumnavigate that stage, we walk above a subterranean room complete with ladder and jars of clay that is visible through a glass square at our feet. A few steps farther and we are face to beak with a real vulture with enormous wing span that sits poised on a dead branch-- an ominous precursor of what is to come. We amble on past scribbled notes on a table, some randomly placed chairs, a dead tree extending to an endless sky; and then we see her--at first, seeming like an iconic statue that we have seen elsewhere: blue veil, beatific glow, candles at her feet, holding white lilies. Upon closer inspection however, we realize that this is a real flesh and blood woman. That will become startlingly clear once the plexiglass is lifted and the veil is shed. This wild-eyed force of nature will come roaring forth from her enclosure, unbound with a story to tell, a myth to shatter, a testimony to give.

The opening of The Testament of Mary, a new play by Colm Toíbín, was met with protests by conservative Catholic groups and others offended by its iconoclastic portrayal of Mary (Fiona Shaw), the mother of Jesus. (Admittedly, many of them hadn't seen the play.) This is a Mary who drinks, rages, disputes revered Biblical accounts, and finally stands naked before jumping into her own "Pool of Bethesda" to be cleansed of the luridness of the tale she has been compelled to tell. To be overly distracted by her non-traditional mien and dress however, may be to miss the profundity of what she communicates on a deeply human and visceral level.

The danger inherent in the reading of Biblical passages is that they can lose their ability to motivate and inspire--not because they lack transformative potential, but because we become inured to their power due to over-familiarity. We've heard the stories before; we've seen the Cecil B. DeMille and Franco Zeffirelli movies; and we've listened to the boring, disembodied homilies that bring us no closer to religious truth and meaning. So, we stop listening, stop imagining, stop caring. The Testament of Mary makes this impossible to do. This enraged and grieving mother Mary grabs us by the throat and demands that we listen to the story that she has been preordained to tell. She didn't ask to be the mother of any God. She gave birth to a son who as an adult was heinously tortured and crucified as she stood by helplessly watching. She's not about to go meekly into the night about it now.

Much of Mary's rage in Colm Toíbín's depiction is directed toward the disciples of Jesus, whom she calls "misfits." From her perspective they did nothing to thwart her son's untimely march toward cruelty and death. They were "losers" who kept feeding a notion that the world and history would be changed by her son's words and actions. She is unmoved by their reverie. If per chance true, it would come at too high a cost for him--and her--to pay. "It was not worth it," she bellows to the night. She wants her life back when she watched her son and husband walk toward the house discussing the days events as father and sons are wont to do. She wants to hold that son again, to feel his breath upon her neck. The breath of some disembodied spirit means nothing to her.

During the course of an intermission-less 80 minutes, we hear Mary tell her version of the raising of Lazarus, the wedding feast of Cana, and the brutal crucifixion, which, stakes in hand, she reenacts. These are demythologized retellings to be sure. She will have none of the hagiographic overlay of redactors who have tainted the story and none of the distortion that seeps in with historical distance. She was there, after all. Lazarus may have been walking around, but he still seemed dead to her. Some water may have tasted like wine at a wedding, but "did anyone actually see what jugs they brought in?" As for the Resurrection, well, she did have the same dream as someone else about her son being alive again...the same exact dream. "Now, how can that happen?" It is left as a question.

While people of Christian faith may, too, be left with many questions by this production, arguably, that is what good art does. It invites us to ask the deeper questions without forcing us to wholeheartedly agree with its perspective or conclusions. The answers to the questions must be our own. We have our own testaments to tell.

Having recently heard the Passion narrative read twice in its entirety on Passion/Palm Sunday and Good Friday, I have never experienced it as deeply as I did the other night in a theater that had become its own sacred space and liturgical venue. The liturgy began pre-performance with us treading the sacred proscenium with our preconceived notions of what was to unfold. It ended with us leaving that liturgy never again to hear these stories of faith in quite the same way. I beg to differ with the testament of Mary: It was worth it.