Ever tried working your way through one of the world’s great art museums without a plan? Before you even finish with the Middle Ages, you start coming down with a case of Madonna fatigue—the feeling that you can’t possibly look at another canvas or statue depicting the mother of Jesus. In fact, given the enormous number of Annunciations, Nativity scenes, Pietas, and Assumptions in which she’s had a starring role, Mary is probably her son’s only serious competition for the title of Most Painted Figure in Western Art.
But although she’s been a visual-arts superstar for more than two millennia now, Mary hasn’t had a lot to say. Her reticence begins in the Gospels, where her role requires not much more than humble obedience at Christ’s birth and grieving at his crucifixion. Somehow, it’s been enough to persuade generations of Christians that she’s the apotheosis of womanhood: chaste, long-suffering, and pretty much mute.
That reassuring presence is entirely absent from The Testament of Mary, now onstage at Victory Gardens Theater under the unobtrusive direction of Dennis Zacek. Adapted by Colm Tóibín from his short novel, the 90-minute monologue gives us a Mary who’s an angry unbeliever, filled with bitterness and regret. Living in a safe house some years after the crucifixion, she’s paid regular visits by two somewhat menacing followers of her son. They’re compiling an account of Christ’s life that will presumably become one of the Gospels.
Her version of the story is broadly similar to what you’ll find in the New Testament, though with some major revisions. She dismisses the disciples as misfits and malcontents. Her son’s so-called miracles strike her as dubious or, in the case of Lazarus, grotesque. She tried to persuade Jesus to stop his rabble-rousing ministry to save his life, but did not remain steadfast at the foot of the cross, choosing to flee at the last hour in order to avoid capture. Lastly, she never saw him resurrected except in a dream.
Tóibín is up to something more than mere blasphemy. As a novelist, he excels at worming his way into the psyche of seemingly unknowable characters—even, in The Master, the deeply secretive Henry James. Here, he succeeds in making Mary flesh by letting her break her patient silence at last and express the fury and heartbreak we’d expect a mother would feel as she watches her son become a stranger and then a dead man.
In Zacek’s staging, it seems at first that Linda Reiter will use her tough demeanor and loud, throaty voice to turn Mary into an irascible Elaine Stritch type. But she allows herself to break, particularly during her harrowing description of the crucifixion, and seems in those moments at once pitiable and formidable, like the flawed heroine of a Euripides tragedy.
Taken with Tóibín’s uncompromising script, Reiter’s powerfully raw performance makes the case that the story of Jesus isn’t about redeeming humankind, but about our limitless capacity for foolishness and cruelty. “When you say that he redeemed the world,” Mary says, “I will say that it was not worth it.”