written by Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager
This past weekend, Victory Gardens Theater welcomed its first audiences to witness the Midwest premiere of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. This solo-performance work, performed by revered Chicago-based actress Linda Reiter, garnered post-show discussions intersecting art, religion and history in response to this creative re-imagining of Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the play, Mary recounts the life and times of her son, Jesus, and the days that followed his crucifixion. From his most memorable miracles to the final hours of his life, The Testament of Mary takes the divine image of Mary presented in biblical and historical narratives, and deconstructs her to a more humanistic and down-to-earth portrayal of a mother reconciling with the greatest loss a parent can endure – the loss of a child.
Alongside the author’s personal anecdotes and acute descriptions of his own work, Toibin articulates a sense of wisdom when conveying who he is as an artist and human being. In an interview with NPR, Colm expressed that as an Irish writer, he comes from a place of silence. When his father died, a tense quiet fell over his family and no one spoke his name again. This parallels the difficulty Mary has in naming her own son when speaking of him through the course of the play. And it is this silent tension that has been rampant over audiences during preview performances of The Testament of Mary. Throughout the tense 75-minute narrative, not one person moved a muscle. All eyes were on Mary, and several of them shed tears throughout the course of the play.
In critiquing the intersection of faith and art, many patrons were quick to acknowledge a clear difference between the two, while others more immediately responded by sharing their faith and beliefs in this open exchange. This cross-faith, cross-generational, and cross-gender exchange allowed for a comprehensive dialogue to spark about Mary and the ways she lives in our lives even now, hundreds of years later. Audiences were even quick to challenge Colm’s intention of the piece:
Someone shared, “Mary attempts to dispel the stories written by men about her and her son. Yet as a male playwright, Colm is doing the exact same thing by writing this character in this way. So at the end of the day, it all comes down to these worlds being mastered and manipulated by men.”
In response to this, another said:
“Though that might be true, he knows how to write about women. I identified with every word that was spoken on that stage.”
Now, without giving too much of the play away, several patrons had very visceral responses to the final moment of the piece, where Mary questions whether or not her son’s crucifixion was worth the sacrifice.
One shouted, “As a strong Catholic woman, my faith tells me that His death was worth everything. But as a mother, and had it been my son on the cross? I don’t know how I would feel.”
Following Sunday’s heated discussion, a woman waited patiently to speak with me privately. We sat at the foot of the stage, and she told me the most tender story of how she lost a child shortly after childbirth. One of the most difficult events in her life, she shared with me the story of her daughter’s death, and how she chose to donate her organs. And in this exchange, in her daughter’s organs living in other human beings, she was able to find peace. For this mother, she said that sacrifice was worth it.
Although several patrons were strong to their convictions, others embraced having their faith challenged. In their collective doubt, they were able to identify with one another. In their collective silences, these tense and long silences Colm writes from, they were able to understand one another and live in that critical space as a collective.