05/01/2013 10:51 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Tóibín's Mary Breaks Her Silence


Apprehensive is an understatement. Walking into see "The Testament of Mary," I had no idea what to expect; however, there are not enough adjectives to describe the energy and beauty with which this one-woman monologue unfolds on the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre.

Upon entering the theatre, you're immediately drawn to the stage, which is obscurely stunning. Marked by the presence of a live vulture coupled with a lone tree trunk and other scattered objects, it's one of the most empty yet complete and richly emotional sets I've ever seen. It's here that before the performance begins, the audience is invited to the stage to take part in what feels like a procession around the Virgin Mary (Fiona Shaw) who appears ensconced behind glass and surrounded by candles. Dressed in clothing traditionally associated with the mother of Jesus, it was during this experience that I began to understand the profound message the production's creative team was trying to convey: this is the Mary you think you know.

It is this vision of Mary that is literally lifted the moment the production begins. Here the audience comes face-to-face with a dramatic conception of a "Mary" who is frustrated, angry and overcome with grief. In many ways, Tóibín's play turns our traditional and recondite concept of the Virgin Mary into a human being whom the audience is able to connect with on a personal level.

Although Tóibín's script is powerful, it is Fiona Shaw who brings the role of Mary to life in a performance that is both provocative and stunning. Shaw's anger is palpable as she manages to express this deep emotion in a way that is beautiful and stands in stark contrast to our common understanding of the mother of Jesus. Portraying the role in what feels like a habitual state of desolation is no small feat, but Shaw is flawless. Throughout the entire production, she maintains a level of energy and a profound sense of loss and frustration that challenges viewers.

The staging itself and creative elements of the set offer attendees symbols that act only to enhance Tóibín's words. The dramatic use of the well and the tree which springs forth seems to speak directly to the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as described in the Gospels. Whether the introduction of this symbol is meant to reinforce Mary's own doubts regarding her son's legacy or to reaffirm the belief of Christians is unclear; however, the inclusion of such presents an interesting challenge to Mary's own final words: "It was not worth it."

Having seen "The Testament of Mary" three times over the past two weeks, it's quite clear that the director and producers for this production took a risk in bringing it to Broadway; however, had they not, they would have deprived the public of seeing one of the most darkly beautiful plays I've ever seen. Tóibín's masterpiece is enriched by the presence of Fiona Shaw and through this production, Shaw further reinforces the talented actress that she is.

"The Testament of Mary" is a testament in and of itself to the important role that theater plays in our society: it brings controversy to the stage not for the sake of scandal, but rather so that silence itself might be shattered.