Review: “The Testament of Mary”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave.
When: through Dec. 14
Tickets: $20-$60
Phone: 773-871-3000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

It’s not easy being an icon. Consider, for example, Mary, the mother of Jesus, immortalized forever in paintings and sculptures: Receiving the angel of the annunciation, holding her infant or crucified son, being assumed body and soul into heaven, and looking beatific most of the time. Worshiped as the blessed virgin, she’s essentially been deified beyond recognition as human.

Colm Toibin’s iconoclastic “The Testament of Mary” asks us — no, forces us — to see her in a different light. The grieving mother of an only son who’s martyrdom she doesn’t fully understand and cannot accept, she’s angry, resentful, bitter, confused, remorseful, guilt-ridden — in other words, totally, understandably human. And in the Victory Gardens production, impeccably directed by original artistic director Dennis Zacek, Linda Reiter brings her heart-wrenchingly to life with all her flaws and contradictions, as well as a sharp sense of humor.

Initially a monologue performed in Dublin in 2011, then a 2012 novella, and in 2013 a one-woman show that closed on Broadway after two weeks and religious protests, “Testament” is set in Ephesus some 20 years after Jesus’ death, though the time and place are vague and seem to shift in Victory Gardens’ version as Mary shares her recollections. She’s either being protected or imprisoned by two of her son’s followers, who have been questioning her and want her to confirm the now-familiar account of events they believe will change everything.

From Mary’s perspective, the Wedding at Cana, which she didn’t want to attend, and the Raising of Lazarus have dark overtones. She goes to the wedding to bring Jesus home, only to have him reject her, and she’s shocked when he refers to himself as the son of God. She’s also skeptical about his miracles and describes the raised Lazarus as far from his former self and not long for this world, suggesting that bringing him back may not have been a good idea.

The crux of her story is the crucifixion described in excruciating detail almost as if in real time. Toibin takes his cue from the Gospel of John, the only one of the four gospels that speaks about Mary at the foot of the cross, but she recalls trying to distract herself from Jesus’ agony by studying a man feeding soft-bellied live rabbits to a caged hawk. And terrified of being arrested or killed, she flees with Lazarus’ sister, Mary, as directed by their “guardian” rather than staying until the end.

While she’s tormented by guilt about her flight, Mary makes no apologies for her survival. She scorns the interrogators who insist on her immaculate conception when she was the one who was there, and has enough doubts about the resurrection that it’s transformed into a dream of the still living Jesus laid across her lap, just like the Pietà. But her greatest wrath is reserved for those who say Jesus’ death saved the world, and her final words are a mother’s fierce, full-of-fury retort: “It wasn’t worth it.”

Besides Reiter’s performance, which hits all the right notes from reserve to rage without going overboard, Victory Garden’s production benefits from its simplicity. Christpher Ash’s wide set done in beige and gray with an upstage channel for water, candles on the floor, and some ceramic vessels has a timeless, ceremonial quality, while his abstract projections hint at other locales. Michael Rourke’s lighting is subdued and evocative, as is Andre Pluess’ sound design. Sarah Jo White’s costume for Mary, a brown robe over a white shift, defies our expectations in an understated way.

All in all, I didn’t know what to expect from “The Testament of Mary” but found it provocative in the best way — plus Reiter is not to be missed.