New Rep's "Testament of Mary": Immaculate Conception?

Paula Langton in "The Testament of Mary"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

New Rep's current production is the controversial one-woman play “TheTestament of Mary”, by Colm Toibin, first performed in 2011 as a monologue, then the basis of his own 2012 novella. In this expanded version presented in 2013 on Broadway, it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play. It remains a fictionalized account of the relationship of a woman named Mary to her deceased son Jesus, her love for him and her grieving after his death. The controversy surrounding the Broadway version centered on its all-too-human portrayal of a real person who was present at the inception of one of the world's great religions. True believers protested what they deemed to be blasphemous. Putting aside the misuse of the term, which when correctly used refers to sacrilege against God or sacred things, they seemed to be making the argument that any familiarization or humanization of Mary of Nazareth was inherently profane, despite the fact that, not coincidentally, they hadn't seen the show.

Since the playwright makes no claim to historical accuracy, this should lead one to an appreciation of the work as one of pure fabrication, the product of an author's imagination. Toibin himself acknowledges that he put aside not only the Gospels but all other potential sources (including oral tradition, which of course is itself notoriously subjective and factually undependable). He has attempted, he further states, to portray his view of “the tone and texture of this woman's voice on this particular day”. There are obvious pitfalls in so doing, when humanization supersedes dogma; the former is fluid and potentially theatrical, the latter rigid and immutable. The author's expressed intent was to “explore an icon rather than reducing” the woman at the center of the beginnings of Christianity.

As theater, then, rather than as doctrine, how effective is this portrayal? It certainly makes for a more approachable and demythologized depiction of a real person, who has been at times in the past  weighted down with the accumulated accretions of what has often been seen, especially by those not of any Christian faith system, as “Mariolatry”, that is, excessively ardent and even cult-like devotion to Mary. The nature and depth of such profound dedication is of course subjective. This production stars Paula Langton (no stranger to New Rep theatergoers, having appeared previously in the company's productions of Assassins, Bakersfield Mist, Amadeus, and On the Verge, and due to perform in its next mounting, Blackberry Winter). Langton, though encumbered by a cold, in a short ninety minutes, makes Mary real if not full of grace, in a bravura performance, Directed by Jim Petosa. She describes how two unidentified visitors (most likely the Evangelists St. Luke and undoubtedly St. John, based on the content of their Biblical attributions) arrived to question her, which forms the basis for her monologue. Perhaps the playwright oversteps a bit with his depiction of Mary as no longer attending services in the Synagogue, and of jarringly unorthodox (you should excuse the expression) dialogue (or prayer) with the goddess Artemis in the Roman Temple. And there are a few glaring anachronisms. On the whole, though, it works, as the author reveals quite a bit of empathy for Mary's expressed feeling of “heaviness”. On the creative end, the Scenic Design is by Ryan Bates (providing a truly weird entrance for Langton), the almost through-composed Music and Sound Design are by Dewey Dellay, the Costume Design is by Tyler Kinney and the effective Lighting Design is by Matthew Guminski.

At one point Mary confesses she wants “what happened not to have happened”. In the end, Mary and her visitors must face the question of whether or not the death was all worth it. Mary states that it was not. One thing for sure, though: the Book was better.

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