Langton Shines in New Rep’s “Testament” (4.5 Stars)
by Mike Hoban
‘The Testament of Mary' – Written by Colm Toibin; Directed by Jim Petosa; Scenic Design by Ryan Bates; Lighting Design by Matthew Guminski; Costume Design by Tyler Kinney; Composer & Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Black Box Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown, through Feb. 28
People tend to take their heroes, icons, and (especially) their religious figures very seriously. So when a playwright or screenwriter takes a story involving one of those icons and asks, ‘What if THIS is what really happened?’ and veers away from the prevailing meme about the individual, it had better be plausible. And when the individual being re-invented is Mary, generally accepted as the Mother of God by over two billion Christians, you’d better be prepared for some backlash from the true believers. And while those folks may have much to challenge with this work, playwright Colm Tóibín has crafted a compelling take on the final days leading up to the death of Jesus – by telling it from a mother’s perspective, rather from that of the Mother of God.
When the play opens, Mary makes something of a grand entrance – as would befit one of her stature – as the stacked stone wall mechanically opens and she steps out onto the spare set. Actress Paula Langton takes the time to make eye contact with as many in the black box audience as possible, establishing a very human connection. It is three decades after the crucifixion, and Mary is returning from what seems to be the tiring routine of meeting with the disciples, who seem to want to shape the story to best fit their own ends. “I will say nothing that is not true but they may not wish to hear,” she says of her inquisitors, later saying of one of the Gospel writers, “I know that he has written of things that neither he nor I saw.”
This is not the Mary of religious literature, but one of a grieving, sometimes angry and confused mother, who must live with her regrets while trying to cope with her unwanted status as the Mother of God. Langton artfully captures this essence, giving us a Mary that is less ethereal and more grounded in the political reality of what happened than of its spiritual implications. Her description of her son’s new friends as "misfits" at the beginning of his calling seems fairly in line with an outsider’s view of any group of people who may be seeking a different path in life than the current society has to offer. She says of them, "(they are) only children like himself, or men without fathers, or men who could not look a woman in the eye." Interestingly, she never calls her son by his name, and only refers to him as “my son”, but the omission is clearly borne of pain.
She also seems to question whether the deeds that Jesus performed were indeed “miracles”, but it also seems clear to the audience that they were indeed quite miraculous, such as the changing of the water into wine and raising of Lazarus from the dead. Her account of how she felt while witnessing the crucifixion is harrowing and again takes the focus away from the religious implications to what it must have been like for a mother to see her son be put to death in such a gruesome fashion.
As someone who didn’t pay attention very much during my religious indoctrination as a child, and who has not studied the Bible very much, I did not have any moral or philosophical objections to the material in the play. Instead, what I saw was very much like what I heard from the “Jesus Christ Superstar” album as a young teen in 1971 – a humanization of a religious figure that provided another way to think about them. Langton’s performance is very strong and the writing is brilliant at times, but at 95 minutes, the play could probably use a little trimming. The set (the same one used in “Via Dolorosa”) is minimal but effective, and the sound and lighting design for the production was a huge plus. At the end of this one-woman monologue, Mary asks herself, “Was it worth it?” I can’t tell you her response, but it’s definitely worth the trip to New Rep for those who aren’t overly invested in a strict religious or historical interpretation. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/productions/the-testament-of-mary/