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

The Testament of Mary: Nailed to the Cross

The news that The Testament of Mary would close on Sunday hung in the air for Friday evening's performance, more prominently than any of the play's props, including a dead tree. At the prologue, the audience comes to the stage circling Mary as blessed icon, robed in blue. How she became that exalted figure is what this play's about. To be sure, sharing the stage with a vulture may be genius, but not a good sign for a long life.

A 90 minute tour de force of writing by novelist Colm Toibin, featuring a bravura one-woman act by Fiona Shaw as directed by Deborah Warner, this play is a vigorous, daring, and breathtaking workout for any actor. With her angular bones, Fiona Shaw becomes the mother of a son whose name is not mentioned who must endure and witness the populace's choice that he be crucified--and not by tying him to the cross as they do to mere criminals--but with nails in unspeakable cruelty. The nails are giant pewter pins as Mary mimics her son's pose, in such excruciating pain he cannot lift the other arm once one is fixed and bleeding. You could hear the proverbial pin drop at the Walter Kerr Theater, for an audience that had rushed to see a final performance.

You could say The Testament of Mary is a Tony Award casualty, nominated for a Best Play, Best Sound Design for Mel Mercier, Best Lighting Design for Jennifer Tipton, but not for the singular spectacle of Fiona Shaw as Mary, secular, bereft mother of a son sacrificed to redeem the sins of a people whose primary sin is murdering him. This is a naked portrayal. As reported, Shaw decided to cancel, and with that, the show. In Testament's final moments she recounts the followers' words, "His suffering was necessary so we would be redeemed." She adds, "I will say, it was not worth it." Despite the beauty of a cobalt blue backdrop to a gilded leafy tree, never have a show's last words had this weight, and with so little hope for resurrection.

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