In most versions of the Christ story, Jesus's mother, Mary, takes a backseat following the birth of her son, and is portrayed as a beatific, virtuous woman who acts primarily as God's servant. What makes Colm Toibin's play "The Testament of Mary" (adapted from his book of the same name) so fascinating is the view of Mary not as a saint, but as a grieving mother, and Jesus as a son rather than a savior. The new production at Pure Theatre for Piccolo Festival further strips down the story to present Mary as a more recognizable human being than ever: distraught, frustrated and confused as to why it happened to her.
Mary, played by Sharon Graci, lives alone following the death of her son, leaving an empty chair in her kitchen for him, refusing to let anyone else sit there. Her son's death has given hope to the world, but it's left an unfillable hole in her life, and she can't help but reflect on his path to crucifixion. She speaks of his miracles not with an awed tone, but with the knowledge that it led to his death, and with the memory Christ the Savior had no time to be Christ the son.
When the show made its Broadway debut in 2013, Deborah Warner's direction drew mixed responses for its busy staging, including the use of a live vulture. By contrast, director Erin Wilson opts for a minimalist approach, dressing the stage only with a table, two chairs and a paint-spattered cloth backdrop. This refreshing lack of fussiness better serves the show, turning over the action to Graci's expressive face and the deathly imagery in Toibin's language, from Mary's view of a vulture feasting on dead animals at the crucifixion to the horrible description of the aftermath of Lazarus's resurrection.
As Mary, Graci brings a remarkable mix of restlessness and weariness, bitterness and deep pain. She's a human amidst divine events, and one who sees how they strip the humanity away from her son, to the point where he does not acknowledge her at the wedding in Canaan. Mary looks past the idealism of her son's message with a clearheaded view of the threat it poses to the Romans and what it meant for her son's fate. She speaks as a loved one turned outsider, kept from her son and forced to watch him march inexorably towards his death even before the Romans sentence him.
When the testament does finally reach the execution and aftermath, the character's grief goes from painful to grueling as Graci's performance takes on a new physicality, miming the terrors her son went through as she describes his pain. Furthermore, the character opines that humanity's redemption wasn't worth the death of her son. It's a bleak, despairing view, but one borne less out of a reaction to or against religion and more from unbearable sorrow. In that, "The Testament of Mary" makes a canonized figure's perception tangible.
Max O'Connell is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.