There is enough in Colm Tóibín’s novella and subsequent play The Testament of Mary to set a biblical literalist’s head spinning. It is the story of Mary (Fiona Shaw), the mother of Christ, which she relates after her son’s death. She has abandoned Judaism and only attends pagan temples, she refers to the apostles as “misfits” and claims that her version of events “does not stretch to whatever limits [they have] ordained.” She laughs off the Immaculate Conception, calls Jesus’ aphorisms “high flown talk and riddles,” and admits that, during the crucifixion, “my first instinct was to flee and it was also my last instinct” because “the pain was his and not mine”—meaning that the defining image of the pietà is, in this rendering, religious revisionism. But most importantly (and blasphemously), Mary declares with great conviction, “It was not worth it.”
And yet, these out of context quotations do not do justice to the tone of Mr. Tóibín’s work. The Testament of Mary is a gorgeous, tender piece of prose, one that recalls the brilliant restraint of a novelist like Marilynne Robinson. In a recent New York Times article, he wrote, “I thought of writing a play in which the Virgin Mary, the silent woman we prayed to, would speak.” Indeed, this is not a heretical play but a human one. As we enter the theater, we are invited up onstage to view Ms. Shaw, frozen and shielded from us by a glass case. But as the play begins, the glass rises and she becomes animated: the statue, the icon who is only spoken of in mythic terms, has come to life, standing somewhat small and enveloped by negative space.
This is, then, the story of a woman who loses her son, and it is little consolation to her that her son would become the central figure of a major world religion; in fact, the words “Jesus” and “Christ”—or even “Yeshua ben Yosef,” his Hebrew name—are never spoken in the play’s ninety minutes. Sometimes the emotions could be even more universal, and she could just be speaking about a boy who leaves home: “I tried not to think, or imagine, or dream, or even remember, when the thoughts that came arrived unbidden and were to do with time—time that turns a baby who is so defenceless into a small boy, with a boy’s fears, insecurities and petty cruelties, and then creates a young man, someone with his own words and thoughts and secret feelings.” In a devastating moment, Mary is reunited with Jesus at a wedding, and when she begs him to run away, to save himself, he coldly bellows, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?”
Still, there is something missing in the transformation from novella into play: Mr. Tóibín’s words, in the mouth of Ms. Shaw, are somewhat dead. Perhaps this is deliberate, perhaps Mary has suffered so much she has become numb, but then, I believe, it is the wrong choice. This is a situation that would most likely remain raw for the rest of her life—and yet she plays it as distant. There is so much that is good here that I was baffled at my own tepid response; the effect was more like a reading than a staging. So, I suppose, the best recommendation would be to pay $20 for the book instead of $80 for the play, unless you can afford both.