Colm Tóibín’s Mary is not full of grace. Rather, the deliverer of “The Testament of Mary” (presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts Black Box Theater through Feb. 28) brims with grief and some pretty unorthodox opinions. Irish author Tóibín’s 2011 monologue, which became a 2012 novella, presents a mother of Jesus who regards the Twelve Apostles as prying “misfits” and gutturally pronounces God’s procreational gambit to save mankind “not worth it.” This Mary is no cerulean-draped icon of divine passivity pondering things in her heart; she’s resentful, anguished, unkempt and brutally human.
Needless to say, this unholy vision has not set well with all. There was apparently little uproar when the solo theater piece was unveiled in Dublin in 2011 featuring the great Irish actress Marie Mullen. But the 2013 Broadway debut of “Testament,” starring Tony-winning actress Fiona Shaw, drew vocal, placard-wielding protest from something called the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property. Closer to home, this New Rep staging has incited the ire of a Pennsylvania-based Catholic organization called America Needs Fatima, which called on New Rep to cancel its production.
But “The Testament of Mary,” here stripped of the Broadway outing’s metaphoric bells and whistles (there was nudity — and a live vulture!), is hardly blasphemous. As performed by Paula Langton under the tutelage of New Rep artistic director Jim Petosa, this is revealed as a thoughtful, harrowing piece of writing that examines what it might have been like for a mother to watch her son tortured and killed, to have been helpless to prevent or ameliorate his suffering, to have witnessed it amid chaos and casual voyeurism, and then to have been badgered by the disciples who wished to translate Jesus’ agony into a mythology. By report, Shaw portrayed Mary as a “wild-eyed force of nature.” Langton, wearing layers of rough shmata and performing in a more intimate space, presents a quietly ferocious Mary, whose admission of cowardice is painfully wrenched from her. The lower-key approach puts the focus on Tóibín’s spare, vividly sketched word portrait, which is arguably where it should be.
I suspect that “The Testament of Mary” might be even more powerful as narrative than as theater. Still, the New Rep creative team has given the piece — which is spoken directly to the audience, making us witnesses to Mary’s brutally honest witnessing — a creditably ancient, Middle Eastern ambiance. Particularly effective is Dewey Dellay’s whispery, seemingly old-as-the-earth sound design.
In Ryan Bates’ scenic design, a wall of stones, part of which pulls away for Mary’s entrance, backs the small playing space, with the audience seated on three sides. Occasionally the stones glow red. What might be the bottom of a huge, mottled cross rises out of view. And there is a single, large boulder on which Mary sometimes perches (a mistake since, with her feet dangling, Langton suggests a Mesopotamian Edith Ann) as she relates what happened, from the wedding at Cana where Jesus turned water into wine to the raising of Lazarus to the cruelty atop Calvary, from which, in this telling, a less than saintly Mary, fearing for her safety, fled.
Her doubts wrenchingly confessed, Mary does revel briefly in a dream in which she gets to cradle her son and see him resurrected from a pool, his suffering forgotten. Langton’s Mary, splayed before the boulder, her head lolled back and rocking, seems to bathe in the ecstasy of this dream before returning to harsher recollections of the crucifixion and its horrors, salvation’s too-large price.
But the Pietà dream does not reflect this ordinary mother’s strongest desire. “I want a Sabbath day,” she tells us, remembering her radiant, possibly hubristic son’s simpler days. “I want to watch from a window as they both come from the temple. My son is talking, and his father is listening, his hand on his shoulder.” (This would be Joseph, not God.) “They are both held in place by love. I want them both held in place by love.”
This is not, of course, the adherence to party line that the pair of disciples who regularly visit the mother of Jesus, quills in hand, are after. This wary, irritated, devastated Mary is hardly the public relations dream they need for their Gospels of a Madonna, comforted that her son’s sacrifice has saved the world. Rather, she is skeptical of dawning Christianity, has forsaken the synagogue, and seeks pagan refuge in the Temple of Artemis, the pre-patriarchal goddess she petitions, at the end, to “let me be free.”
“The Testament of Mary” is beautifully though not showily written. And Langton, regardless of some shaky moments with lines on press opening, delivers it with understated force. Her Mary is possessed not only by dolor but by a lacerating compulsion to tell the truth. Earthy to the core, she will not allow herself to be deified. She may not conform to the Greatest Story Ever Told, but there is a gritty greatness to her story.
Carolyn Clay was for many years the theater editor and chief drama critic for the Boston Phoenix. She is a past winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.