In “The Testament of Mary” Fiona Shaw gives the sort of performance that people will talk about for years.
Colm Toibin‘s remarkable play gives voice to Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she tells the story of her son, the way a mother sees her son — lovingly, tenderly.
Shaw — best known as Petunia Dursley in the “Harry Potter” film franchise and Marnie Stonebrook on “True Blood” — is the only person on stage for 85 minutes and she is riveting for every one of them. She is sad, proud, frustrated and, most of all, heartbroken.
As she talks, she recounts that people had told her what was being written down would change the world. “All of it?” she asks. She is incredulous that her boy will alter history. At no point does she say his name.
The audience is encouraged to arrive at the Walter Kerr Theatre a little early. In this ornate theater, the stage has a lone vulture on a perch. It’s tethered, the ushers reassure people. A glass cube, with burning candles, and eventually with Shaw in its corner, is on stage.
The props are a strange busy combination of modern and ancient — large clay urns and a red plastic chair, a crude wooden ladder, cigarettes. Mary wears a long, plain black tunic over green khakis, no makeup and flat boots.
Eventually, toward the very end, she strips naked. It’s not gratuitous, but fitting as, after a horrendous trip home, after her son is crucified, she is so wretched and filthy she needs to take a bath. Mary is a mother who has reared a son she adored, and who knew him to be kind, graceful and good. She wasn’t wild about his friends. “I told him that all of my life when I have seen more than two men get together, I have seen foolishness,” she says.
Of his disciples, she says, “He gathered around him a group of misfits. Misfits, not one of you was normal, I said.” Mary did not consider herself one of his followers. She was unsure about people’s claims that he resurrected Lazarus and was less than thrilled about all the fuss over her son.
It would be easy to chew scenery in this role; after all playing the mother of Jesus should give an actress some latitude. And as the only person on stage the entire play, she would be forgiven if she slipped into a persona that seemed greater than the story.
Yet as subjective as belief is, it’s difficult to see how this play is disrespectful, as protesters have charged. Rather, it is a play of immense beauty and thought, and one, which could only have been written by someone who has thought deeply about Jesus and Mary, and must be performed by someone with the sort of range and depth Shaw exhibits.