Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin

The Testament of Maryby Colm Tóibín
Directed by Jim Petosa 
featuring Paula Langton
costume design by Tyler Kinney
sound design and compositions by Dewey Dellay
lighting by Matthew Guminski
set design by Ryan Bates
stage manager: Leslie Sears
A New Rep Theatre production 
review by Tom Daley

I just saw Paula Langton’s performance as Mary in the New Rep Theatre’s production of The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, skillfully directed by Jim Petosa at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown, MA. Langton’s Mary moved with none of the contemplative sweetness, the noble passivity, the enduring patience that we have come to expect in characterizations of the Virgin through the Christian, particularly the Roman Catholic, hagiography. As in Tóibín’s book, Mary fulminates against the notion that her son’s suffering brought about redemption to the world. It wasn’t worth it! she cries after a long, scarifying description of the crucifixion and the events surrounding it, including her escape from Golgotha before her son’s death and his removal from the cross. 

For over one astonishing hour and a half, Langton, the only actor in this play, whirled, cajoled, wept, pleaded, stalked, reasoned, and castigated as she narrated the track of her suffering and fear. At times, the barefoot woman moved with an imperious, almost demented passion that was one part Lady Macbeth, one part King Lear. It was a remarkable performance, one that shatters so utterly the stereotype of the Virgin Mary that I’ll never think of that iconic figure in the same way again,

Langton spent the first few minutes of the play reconnoitering the darkness that surrounded the stage. As she circled, her haunted eyes probed the tiers of seats in the small theater, but her eyes never seemed to land on the eyes of anyone in the audience. She projected a kind of incredulous horror, as if she weren’t sure whether she faced phantoms cobbling together a nightmare or inquisitors scheming before a trial.

Mary’s testament in the Colm Tóibín novella denounces the evangelists who were asking her to re-invent the history of her son’s suffering and her role in it. She has plenty of contempt for them, dismissing them as misfits, losers, men “who couldn’t look a woman in the eye.” Langton conveyed, perhaps too well, the indignation, the dismissiveness, the resentment Mary felt towards these pathetic manipulators and the way her quiet, needy son was transformed into a man who would swagger in finery that he seemed to think he deserved, who could act as if he didn’t know who she was when she begged him to abandon his crusade. Langton kept the pressure of Mary’s terrifying and terrified resentment at full tilt throughout the play, with unrelenting commitment to the purity of its expression. While it waxed and waned in volubility, the cadence of her complaint was unwavering.  

The Mary of Testament is not a one-note singer. Because of the persistently consistent tone, at times it seemed as if Langton was becoming just that. But, blessedly, in a scene in which Mary recounts a shared dream with Jesus’s disciple Mary (sister of Martha and Lazarus), the stance softens. In recounting the dream, the character loses her acridity and turns tender as she recalls the image of examining her son’s wounds and washing the blood from his hair as she holds him. In this sequence, Langton’s Mary was vulnerable, gently stirring and writhing in the joy of the recollection. Her passion seemed to stream from a cooler, deeper rill. Here, the profundity of feeling eased itself into her voice. Here, the fierce attachment achieved its devastating impact without ferocity.

The lighting and staging were complemented the intensity of Langton’s performances with touches subtle and bold. At the mention of a well, a spot with a multi-colored gel was trained on the floor towards the front of the raised platform that served as a stage. Mary sat behind the circle of light and ran her fingers through sand that covered a mirrored surface within the circle. The effect was exquisite—the languid hand uncovering the silver sheen, leaving the wide, tracing arc of her fingers. 

A steel girder, dipped in a ruddy Rustoleum  and slightly roughened with other colors, served as a stand-in for the cross. It was lit garishly, but not so much so that it called attention to itself, except when Mary was regarding it with hurt and awe. An enormous boulder bulked at the center of the stage, and Langton used it to fine advantage when she stood tall on it in one of her more forceful moments of confrontational fortitude. The backdrop of the stage was a wall built of rectangular stones that lent the eerie effect of a prison. In the opening scene the wall suddenly split and shifted into sections, one sliding backwards so that Mary could enter. Before the wall split, blue light the color of a police car flasher nosed itself through the cracks. This was repeated again later in the play, insinuating even more deeply the feeling that Mary was a prisoner of her son’s reputation, and his follower’s attempts to coopt her into their mythologizing. There was an artfully minimal use of music in the play, accentuating some of the more dramatic scenes with slightly jarring percussion and a few discordant notes. Strangely enough, the music from The Full Monte, The Musical (which was playing upstairs in the same theater complex) slid through the ceiling as a kind of distant counterpoint. I like to think of it as the carnival carnality, the far-off rumblings of the crowd of Jesus’s fanatical supporters which sprung dread into Tóibín’s Mary.

At the end of the play, Mary kneels, but not to the memory of her son. As the mother of a controversial martyr, she cannot return to her synagogue in Nazareth. She finds comfort in visiting, with a neighbor, the temple of the Greek goddess, Artemis, even buying a small silver statue of the goddess as an icon for succor. As the lights fade, she importunes the goddess. This blasphemous identification of the mother of Jesus with the pagan goddess of the hunt, of wild animals, of wilderness, of virginity rounds out Tóibín’s wildly successful upending of the myth of the Blessed Virgin. Langton and director Petosa catapulted this upending into a passionate denouement. In the few seconds of dark before the stage lights go up, the audience sat in stunned and enthralled silence.

There is one more performance of the play this afternoon (Sunday, February 28, 2016), rescheduled to 4 pm at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information go to

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