Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin New Repertory Theatre – January 30 - February 28


The Testament of Mary
 by Colm Toibin
Directed by Jim Petosa
New Repertory Theatre – January 30 - February 28

It’s a challenge to take on an icon, and few icons are bigger—or more challenging—than Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Catholic Church believes that she was not only impregnated by God, but also taken bodily to heaven. It can be tough sledding to find a human being people can relate to in there.

In Testament of Mary, a one-woman show based on his novella by the same name, Irish writer Colm Toibin gives it a shot. In his own words, “I had to just leave the Gospels aside, leave all sources aside, and begin to imagine: What would that be like if you had known this man as a baby? If you had nurtured this child.”

A noble starting point. Unfortunately, I came away unconvinced that he had really imagined—fully imagined, felt in his gut—what this experience would have been like for Mary. I came away thinking that this man has no idea how intensely a parent feels about his—or, in the case of the play, her—child.

The problem is that Toibin never establishes a real, believable, moving relationship between Mary and Jesus. We get almost no sense of what it was like for her to know him as a baby, to nurture him. There are a few vague references to him as a child, but nothing that paints a picture of the child who became the man. In fact, we don’t get a whole lot about who he is as a man, either. Considering the gut wrenching conclusion of Jesus’s life, the pain, the loss, the drama of it never really come alive, because we don’t know who he was or, most importantly, who he was to Mary, who is telling us the story.

The play opens with Mary having just seen off two of the evangelists, the followers of Jesus who wrote the Gospels. We don’t get a very clear picture of who they are, either, despite the fact that Mary has presumably been associated with these men for more than 20 years—the play taking place 20 years after Jesus’s execution. All she ever tells us about the followers of Jesus—and she tells us this several times—is that they were misfits. She’s just irritated with these two for wanting her to alter her story to match what they’re writing.

It’s this contrast between what the evangelists want to write and what she experienced that is the basis for the play. It is this discrepancy that leads Mary to tell us her version of the story—mainly, the part about Jesus’s getting in trouble with the Jewish leadership and the Romans and then being executed. This should be powerful stuff, but Toibin never gives Mary the words that would make her experience—of raising Jesus, watching him grow physically and spiritually, become a great spiritual leader, be in great danger, and, finally, be framed and brutally murdered—truly come alive for us.

There is a strangely inappropriate intellectuality about a play on this subject. Even though the actress, Paula Langton, tries to convey pain, sorrow, fear, loss, the words she’s saying are always at one remove from reality. It’s as if she’s talking about some celebrity she’d read about, rather than about a human being she’d given birth, raised, and watched go off into the world. Even under normal circumstances, parenting a child to adulthood is one of the most profound experiences of a lifetime. Under the circumstances of Mary and Jesus’s life, it must have been intensely painful, and, again, although Langton strains to express that pain, Toibin has not given her the material she needs to make the experience real for us, so it’s rarely believable.

The play turns on a cowardly act of Mary’s in the context of Jesus’s execution, something she has felt guilty about for two decades. But, first of all, as a parent, I didn’t believe she would have done what she says she did. Secondly, even if I had been able to believe it, it would have had little emotional impact, because, again, Toibin had not painted the picture of a real relationship between this mother and child that would give the act the impact he clearly wants it to have.

Toibin also employs dreams—too often a writer’s deus ex machina—twice within a short span of time to deal with both the iconic image of Mary holding Jesus in her arms after the crucifixion and with the idea of Jesus’s resurrection. Again, this serves to distance us from her experiences, rather than deeply engaging us with them, because these experiences are not even real for her.

And, finally, Toibin introduces the pagan goddess Artemis as the entity to whom Mary has turned in her disillusionment with Judaism (and, presumably, Christianity, although she never mentions it). This devotion to Artemis comes out of nowhere, in no way feels like an organic development, and smacks of a former Christian sticking it to his former church by making Mary a pagan.

So, what should be a profound story about a parent and a child, about love and loss, about existential suffering, ultimately comes across as an intellectual exercise. I kept wanting to care about Mary’s experience, but she never made it real for me, and it’s hard to care about a life that doesn’t seem real.

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