Following lackluster reviews on Broadway, Irish author Colm Toibin was glad to let A.C.T. artistic director Carey Perloff and resident dramaturg Michael Paller take the various versions of his story of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and do whatever they wanted with it. The Testament of Mary premiered in New York in 2013 starring British actress Fiona Shaw, however it was based on a dramatic monologue Toibin wrote in 2011 for the Dublin Theatre Festival called Testament, which he later made into a bestselling novelization, The Testament of Mary, in 2012. When A.C.T. decided to take it on, Toibin told Perloff to use whichever version she wanted, and what resulted is an amalgam of all three one-woman pieces, as compiled by Paller, which Perloff jokingly refers to as The Gospel According to Michael. The company workshopped their new version, and the result is Testament, playing at the Geary Theater through November 23.
Paller and Perloff's version is more stripped down than the one on Broadway, with less set and fewer props, and starring Canadian actor Seana McKenna last seen in A.C.T.'s productions of Napoli! and Phedre. McKenna commands the stage for 80 minutes without a break, telling the story of Jesus from the perspective of his mother, without ever using his name, and how she watched him become a spiritual leader, how she became estranged from him, watched him crucified, and then had to live in captivity, in the ancient city of Ephesus, with the guilt of not having stayed with her son as he died. Biblical depictions of the crucifixion conflict, with only John mentioning that Mary was there. In Testament, Mary witnesses the crucifixion, but is whisked away to safety along with the other disciples before they can see her son's final hours.
The play is rife with potential for controversy among Catholics, for whom Mary is a sacred figure. But McKenna's Mary feels anything but controversial. She is mournful, sarcastic, angry, bewildered, and mostly confused about what she has experienced but she does not rage like you might expect an actress might given a one-woman platform. She commands attention, and occasionally circles the stage without purpose the set, designed by Alexander V. Nichols, consists only of a bare platform with a card table on it and a couple of chairs, surrounded by the frames of walls, and some strange, icicle-like protrusions jutting from the ground made from what appears to be fiberglass. And her stamina and vocal range throughout is impressive, but she was, perhaps, stymied by the formality and density of Toibin's prose, which rarely allows her to let loose with raw emotion.
In a one-person piece like this, while you want to be hanging on an actor's every word, you also want to have a sense of an emotional ride, complete with a heightened climax and denouement. That didn't quite happen for McKenna on opening night, while it seems like it might as she grows into the role later in the run. Perloff's direction of this admittedly difficult piece feels a bit mechanical, with McKenna at times looking more concerned with getting through the text than with making any logical gestures or movements this way or that. And there is something largely subdued about the whole production that left me wanting. This is, after all, a dramatic retelling of one of the central stories of Western culture from a new perspective but in terms of the staging, the perspective feels less than new, and mostly static.
That said, it's a story worth hearing, and McKenna is a good storyteller. As a piece of theater, well, it may still need some work.
Testament plays through November 23. Get tickets here.