Directed by Dennis Začek
Produced by Victory Gardens Theater
Fascinating Performance by Linda Reiter
The play begins with Mary soaking in a sunken tub upstage. She towels herself off, puts on a nightgown and bathrobe, walks downstage past a row of candles, and declares that Jesus is never coming back. It’s the retelling of an old story as a character study, delivered fresh through unexpected changes and reinterpreting an icon as someone relatable.
The Testament of Mary is a one-woman play written alongside a novel of the same name by Colm Tóibín in 2011 and 2012. Victory Gardens is now hosting its Midwestern debut, expertly directed by Dennis Začek and acted by Linda Reiter. Among her past roles are Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a character with a similar personality to Toibin’s Mary but a much greater willingness to deceive herself.
It is many years after Jesus’s death. Mary lives in the protective custody of the remaining apostles. Assassins still pose a grave danger to her. When the Apostles visit Mary, they mess with her meager possessions just to remind her they’re in charge. They resent her because she refuses to corroborate their accounts of Jesus’s divinity. She misses him too much to say his name or put away his chair. She is still angry and always will be. But she does not believe his magical powers made him God or the Messiah. And a large portion of her anger is directed toward the “misfits” and “malcontents” who enabled the egomania that led him to reject her as family, transform him into a “stilted” bloviating dispenser of less than half-baked philosophy, and die gruesomely and needlessly. They don’t like hearing that, so she tells it to us.
The Broadway run of this play closed after two weeks when it was scheduled to run for eight, so that may be evidence of it being controversial. But Začek dispensed with many of the choices in that production that were not supported by the script. His Mary does not drink whiskey or smoke weed. Her every word is deliberate and crisp. Reiter has an amazing ability to change from sarcasm, to rage, to panic, to sullen bitterness, and still maintain my complete sympathy at every step along the way. In seventy-five minutes, she has very little nice to say about anybody except Joseph and Lazarus. She got irritated when people stared at her when she was with her son like she could solve their problems or cared to. She distracted herself during the crucifixion by watching a bird-keeper feed rabbits to an eagle, and her major motivation for telling the story is to admit her conduct afterward was less than admirable. Yet all her feelings come from somewhere recognizable and reasonable.
The design team has created a cell for Mary’s contemplation that is beautiful and supports Reiter. The tub behind the playing space seems to blend into a still pond. At one point, after Mary misses the bus from Cana, a weather effect breaks the monastic space. Otherwise, Michal Rourke and Christopher Ash allow the projections to represent her colorful emotional state abstractly. Christian Gero’s sound design provides a theme to each event, such as miracles. The changes move with the story without ever overtaking it, allowing the human figure to remain the focus of attention.
The main attraction of the show is to see an intense performance of a script that contains vivid descriptions of scenes and feelings. The program contains a cheat sheet for the gospels, in which you may learn esoteric curiosities such as “the four gospels recount Jesus’s birth, ministry, and death.” If you are a believer and dislike iconoclasm, this show is not right for you. People who consider Mary their personal helper instead of a political symbol may feel unfairly attacked. However, it is brilliant story-telling. Joining this character on her journey is a chance to see acting at its best, and if you regard the Bible as stories to be enjoyed, this production makes the most of them.
Reviewed November 21, 2014
For more information, see The Testament of Mary’s page at Theatre in Chicago.
Playing at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Call 773-871-3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org. Runs through December 14; Tuesdays 7:30 pm except Nov 25 and Dec 2, Wednesdays at 7:30 pm except Dec 3 when it’s at 2:00 pm, Thursdays 7:30 pm except Nov 27, Fridays 7:30 pm, Saturdays 7:30 pm and 4:00 pm on Nov 29, Dec 6, and Dec 13, and Sundays at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $20-40. Running time is seventy-five minutes. Show contains nudity.