Every parent knows how it feels when you see your kid running around with what you feel might be the wrong crowd. But when your son is Jesus Christ and you're his mom, the stakes are raised a bit higher than usual.
For the protesters outside "The Helen" Theatre at Playhouse Square, who are registering their displeasure at the existence of The Testament of Mary, the stakes are indeed high. For others, this elegant one-person play written by Colm Toibin, based on his eponymous novella, is an intriguing glance into the persona of a figure traditionally wrapped — or smothered — in religious iconography and devotion.
In Toibin's construction, we encounter the usually silent and distant Mary a couple decades after her son's death, living in a home where a couple "visitors" keep watch on her. Here she is not a polished and glowing image of maternal glory and acceptance. She is just a woman and mother who helplessly watches as her son is swept along to his fate, egged on by a band of acolytes whom she dismisses as "misfits." She also points out that his road to fame was aided by some possible trickery involving raising a local dude named Lazarus from his grave and turning water into wine at a wedding.
This is less a religious testament than a witness statement, crafted in the spare and subtle words of a playwright who never steps too hard on easy targets — such as the virgin birth. When that subject comes up, Anne McEvoy as Mary indicates that she was there at conception, and her expression says volumes.
Indeed, McEvoy navigates the play's contemporary language with a smooth, firmly controlled tone until she speaks about the crucifixion, when the pain of a mother seeing her son tortured and killed comes to the fore. In this telling, the man on the cross does not bear it all with otherworldly silence. Instead he howls with pain, and that agony is registered indelibly on McEvoy's expressive face.
As intense as McEvoy's performance is, director Bernadette Clemens keeps a tight a hold on the reins, and at times that prevents us from seeing this interpretation of Mary in all possible dimensions. It begins at the top of the show with a reveal of the actor in a manner that is perhaps too clever by half, as we see Mary slowly morph from one costume into another. Are we surprised? Yes. Does it mean anything? That is questionable.
For the bulk of the 80-minute play, McEvoy is gowned by costume designer Kristine Davies in a Clara Bow-ish satiny gown outfitted with a bullet bra that is later covered by a matching satin bolero jacket. This luxe take on what Mary might have been wearing seems to indicate she was chilling in Brentwood, not enduring an implied exile in Ephesus
A similar confusion is raised by Don McBride's scenic design, which features a raised platform surrounded by what looks like the hazards at the 17th hole at Sleepy Hollow Golf Course. There are a couple bunkers, one filled with sand and the other with stones, and a little pond where Mary at times splashes her tootsies. McEvoy's Mary seems entirely at home with these holes, walking casually among them, sitting placidly in the sand and fondling the stones.
It's an interesting and handsome set design, but the meaning seems murky. Since the holes limit Mary's movement and force her to alter her path, these little pits would seem to symbolize the way Mary and her story has been blocked and constricted through history. But Mary appears quite content with the arrangement.
That contentedness flows through the entire performance until finally, towards the end, we see a dark shadow of anger rise as McEvoy describes the demise of her son. What seems to be missing in this production is the spitting, fiery rage of a mother who has witnessed her son being taken from her by forces beyond her control. Without that kind of expression, Mary's testament feels muted and muffled, an unintentional echoing of how Mary has been treated for eons.
It is a tribute to how effective McEvoy's performance is that, at the end, one wishes that Mary would throw a bunch of the stones into the placid water, top it off with fistfuls of sand, and turn the place into a wasteland instead of leaving the tiny country club intact. If that had happened, her final, dramatic flourish with a swath of material from the set would feel redemptive and triumphant.
Quibbles with the staging aside, Toibin's script is finely crafted and Anne McEvoy invests it with a quiet determination and wry skepticism that is rich and evocative. And that is something worth seeing, protests or not.