Afterwords Afterthoughts: Depicting the Divine

written by Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager

Dennis Zacek and Linda Reiter talk about their process in bringing to life The Testament of Mary

From left: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Linda Reiter (Mary) and Dennis Zacek (Artistic Director Emeritus) as they talk about their process in bringing The Testament of Mary to life.

Throughout the last couple of weeks, our Public Programs events for The Testament of Mary have asked our patrons to investigate the image of Mary and how she alters based on who we are as people. To some, she is a Jewish mother grieving the loss of her son. To others, she is a reverential biblical icon – untouched by human hands.

Responses have varied and conversations have been heated, but one thing remains consistent: there are variations of ‘the truth’, and this play allows our patrons to investigate these differences as they experience this image of Mary as she is written by Colm Toibin, directed by Dennis Zacek and performed by Linda Reiter.  

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dennis and Linda following a performance of The Testament of Mary as part of our Public Programs event ‘Depicting the Divine’. In talking through their process of crafting the iconic biblical images portrayed on the stage, Dennis mentioned that Colm left much room for interpretation. “There is one stage direction in the piece,” Dennis said. “‘Mary produces a knife.’ The rest was left for us to figure out.”

I had the pleasure to witness Dennis and Linda’s collaboration in the weeks leading up to opening night. A unique pairing, the two bounced ideas off one another, and were unafraid to explore the varying ways to tackle the rich and profound text Colm left in his wake. “I wanted to create a ceremony, a sacred place, an altar,” Dennis commented. “To make it as pure as I possibly could.”

Their own experiences also influenced their take on Mary. For Linda, a born and raised Methodist, it was the image of Mary as a woman and mother that stuck out to her the most.  “I wonder why no one thought of this before now?” Linda asked. “We think of Mary just being a mother who did what she had to do but what I love about this piece is that she’s intelligent and witty. She’s human.”

For Dennis, born, raised and educated through a Catholic upbringing, it was the shift in perspective that drew him to the work. Brought up with the iconic image of Mary, he was excited by this play asking us to look at Mary through a very different light. “She’s funny,” he added. “And one of the ways people survive hardship is through humor.”

It is fairly obvious that while most theater companies throughout the city are in the midst of their Christmas Carol’s and holiday shows, Victory Gardens is presenting a Midwest premiere of a solo-performance piece that largely pulls from events observed throughout the Easter season. One patron asked Dennis, “We are in the midst of the Nativity, the birth of Christ. Why present this play at a time when Christians are celebrating his birth?”

And in his very coy manner, Dennis curled a smile, creased his mustache and said, “Well… perhaps this is a different kind of Christmas show.”

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: an unspeakable loss

written by Carina Abbaticchio, Literary and Public Programs intern

A panel of bereaved parents share their testimonies following a performance of The Testament of Mary

A panel of bereaved parents share their testimonies following a performance of The Testament of Mary

Before we officially opened this The Testament of Mary this past Friday, all of our post-show discussion audiences have pointed out the fact that Mary is a mother who has lost her son. When asked what this piece is about, audience members have chimed in with:

“A mother who has lost her son”


“A mother’s pain”

“A grieving mother”

This past Saturday we dedicated our entire post-show discussion to this conversation. The idea that transcends the story of Mary and Jesus and of The Testament of Mary: the relationship between a parent and child. While Mary bears witness to her son’s crucifixion, parents all over Chicago bear witness to their children’s suffering whether it be through gun violence, cancer, suicide, or other causes.

An Unspeakbale Loss included panelists from Moms of Murdered Sons (MOMS), Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS), and The Compassionate Friend (TCF).

One of the many ideas that kept coming up in this discussion was how our society addresses loss of children and our panel quickly became a call to action. Alyssa Garcia of TCF said that, as an activist, The Testament of Mary is an important step in changing the way we view grief as a society. Through this discussion, our six panelists were able to discuss the grieving process and how unique it is to each parent. They challenged how society deals with bereaved parents and shared their own testimonies as examples.

Memory was an important component of this process, along with the reclaiming of their child. In The Testament of Mary, Mary attempts to reclaim Jesus as her son, rather than the symbol his followers have made him out to be. Jack Starkey of LOSS said, “When you lose your child… You’ve lost your future. You have to redefine yourself”. In looking at the Mary we see in the play, we can see this aspect of grief; a mother who is expected to be in accordance with our traditions, trying to reclaim herself and her son.

Theatre provides an intimate, shared experience but often we regard it as art, and leave the space talking about the show for a few moments before returning to our lives. Special afterwards, such as An Unspeakable Loss allow us to engage with the work in a more personal way and spark difficult dialogues which otherwise, have little or no room in our culture. Just as Colm Tóibín has allowed Mary to share her testimony, The Testament of Mary allows room for the audience to share their own.


Other quotes from our panel of parents at An Unspeakable Loss:

“After your child’s death, you’re left alone in their bedroom with clothes still hanging in the closet”

“There are 30 seconds of relief when [your child’s] pain is over. But it only lasts 30 seconds.”

“Even though everyone is touched by grief, its deafening…society and loved ones wont always see that”

“They ask: ‘did he deal drugs? Was he in a gang?’ Are those the criteria that make it okay to be murdered?”

“Mary was trembling. It’s something very physiological that happens when your child is taken away”

“I saw this play and if I can take away anything, it’s that you’ve got to hold onto hope.”

For more, please follow @VictoryGardens on Twitter, or search the hashtags #Testify #TestamentofMary and #PublicPrograms

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: remembering Mary

written by Juli Del Prete, Literary and Public Programs Intern

Representations of La Virgen de Guadalupe at Encuentros

 La Virgen de Guadalupe leads many lives. You might know her best as a classic Latina icon: in classic Mary robes, hands together in prayer, surrounded by a starburst. But on any given day, you can also find her on a mural watching over a gas station in El Paso, TX, in a contemporary art gallery, or gracing the sides of buildings in Pilsen. Do a quick Google search, and you’ll find her seducing a mermaid, running a marathon, or done up as a stereotypical chola.

To some, these latter images, these non-traditional images, might be disorienting. Last night, in a special post show discussion, a group of scholars, art curators, and artists gathered to discuss la virgen’s role in Latino art. They noted the parallel between these contemporary reimaginings of her and the way Mary is represented in the play The Testament of Mary. This quickly brought to the fore discussion of what playwright Lucas Hnath dubbed “stereoscopic theatricality”: the theatricalization of a famous figure to create dissonance between the idealized version and the living, breathing human onstage.

This dissonance is exciting. It can also be uncomfortable. When one panelist mentioned “Our Lady of Monsanto,” one of la virgen’s many incarnations, it elicited laughter from some audience members. If we’re used to seeing the Catholic Mary depicted as holy, bringing her down to our Earth, to Monsanto, is weird and funny. But as panelists pointed out, the Catholic church has kept their iconography remarkably consistent over the centuries. Latinos, on the other hand, took la virgen from the image of an Inca grain goddess, and la virgen has been reclaimed time and time again as a form of cultural expression ever since.

“If we don’t reinterpret,” DePaul professor Delia Cosentino pointed out, “things become meaningless.”

After seeing so many images of la virgen, I can’t help but agree. When I see la virgen depicted as a luchadora, I remember the ways that Mary fought. When I see la virgen in the style of Superman, I remember that mothers are heroic. When I see la virgen with a black censorship bar over her face (as she is depicted in a drawing donated to us by the J-DEF Peace Project), I remember the ways that Mary, and so many women, are silenced.

Which brings me back to the play.

This production of The Testament of Mary opens with Mary bathing. An audience member commented that seeing Mary doing something so vulnerable immediately humanized her, allowing access to her testimony. And shouldn’t art remind us that people can be public and private, icon and mother, perfectly imagined and imperfectly reclaimed? Shouldn’t art reflect the struggles and joys of the people that create it? Shouldn’t art, in its purest form, remind us just how human we are?

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: a language of faith

written by Lucas Baisch, Literary and Public Programs Intern

Lucas Baisch performs "AN EXCERISE IN GROWING OLDER: SEVEN INSTALLMENTS" at Wednesday Night Out

Lucas Baisch performs “AN EXERCISE IN GROWING OLDER;SEVEN INSTALLMENTS” at Wednesday Night Out

Last night, I had an acutely different experience partaking in our public program Wednesday Night Out: From Madonna to Madonna, this time participating not only as intern but also as a performer and panelist.

Our pre-show performance consisted of several curated acts presenting artists whose work explored interactions, intersections, conversations between religious iconography and pop culture. I had the opportunity to present one of my solo performance pieces, “an exercise in growing older; seven installments”. My story shares the recent discovery of long kept familial secrets and their parallel to my Roman Catholic upbringing and belief in omens. The pre-show performances were well-received and acted as a relevant starter course for the night’s preview of The Testament of Mary.

After the night’s riveting performance, a panel was gathered consisting of Rev. Chris Robinson (Roman Catholic Priest and Professor at DePaul University), Andrew Fortman (Cultural Programs Manager at Chicago’s Center on Halsted), Ester Alegria (writer, performance artist, and human rights activist), and myself. Our conversation was thoughtfully navigated by Isaac, exploring ideas of why artists are so inclined to include religious iconography, allusion, and language in their work.

On a personal level, the conversation made me think critically about why I choose to utilize such pious imagery and terminology in a vast amount of my work. While my content surfaces on a subconscious level, I find it peculiar that a language of faith is inscribed in my upbringing. In listening to Colm Toibin’s own analysis of his writing, I find myself repeatedly relating to the way in which he uses his personal biography to filter into fictional representations of the world. As an artist, one is constantly searching for ways to abstract their life’s experiences into work that provokes a more universal dialogue. Perhaps this is why pop culture uses religion as an instrument; perhaps deconstructing what we revere permits questions that cannot be asked otherwise.

While I have both observed and led post-show discussions at Victory Gardens, it was an eye-opening experience to shift into a role in which my voice was solicited for conversation. If anything, I feel as though it brings me closer to the play. I left the the theatre feeling less passive as a spectator and more engaged as a participant, trying to identify the parallels my voice shares with the content produced by another artist. I can only hope these thoughts build as I continue to watch the play grow over the course of its run.

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: more questions than answers

written by Carina Abbaticchio, Literary and Public Programs Intern

David Chack and Isaac Gomez moderate a discussion at The Testament of Mary

David Chack and Isaac Gomez moderate a discussion at The Testament of Mary

“They appear more often now…” begins Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. Who are they? We never see them onstage, nor does Mary define them by name or occupation, but they are a constant presence in the world of this play. With the help of David Chack (Artistic Director of ShPIeL-Performing Identity and Professor in Jewish and Holocaust Theatre at DePaul University), the audience engaged in a lively conversation about who these men might be in a special Afterwords discussion on the intersection between Christianity and Judaism.

One audience member pointed out Mary’s anger towards these men and the pressure she faces from them to continue to relive the painful memories of her son’s death. Their questioning and their presence in her life provide the motor for the play. They antagonize her into silence, into a world where she no longer wishes to have dreams, out of fear that those dreams may be misconstrued.

So who are these men? Are they new Christians? Followers of Jesus? Those who would go on to write the Gospel? These were all ideas that the audience posed, although they agreed that Colm Tóibín purposely leaves their identities open to interpretation.

But the identity of these men is just one of many questions  left unanswered. One of the largest questions surrounds the necessity of Jesus’s suffering. When Mary is told by these men that Jesus had to suffer so the world could be saved, she responds, “Saved? Who has been saved? Is that what this was for?” David pointed out the distinct Jewishness of Mary’s response – her interrogation of what they were telling her – her unwillingness to swallow their answers easily.

As we continue to explore the piece with different audiences and panelists through our Public Programs, it will be exciting to see this conversation continue. 


The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: The Testament of Mary

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.

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the show, please click here.

Announcing ACCESS dates for Strawdog Performances

Last month, we were thrilled to host Strawdog’s production of Fail/Safe in our rehearsal room as part of the Access Project. Now, we have three more opportunities for audience members to see Strawdog’s inventive and intense work under the Biograph roof with full accessibility, audio description, and closed captioning. You’ll also be able to use a free ride from Uber for the three performances.

We’ll be hosting their critically-acclaimed production of Great Expectations, a brand-new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the world premiere of the haunting devised work, The Pied Piper.

Great Expectations

Wednesday, December 10 at 8:00 PM

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Thursday, April 2 at 8:00 PM

The Pied Piper

Thursday, June 18, at 8:00 PM

Purchase tickets and find more information about Strawdog Theatre Company at

Rediscovering Rest by Ensemble Playwright Samuel D. Hunter

Just before arriving in Chicago for rehearsals, I spent a couple of weeks in Estonia workshopping a play as part of the Baltic Playwrights Conference.  The conference was held on an island in the Baltic Sea called Hiiumaa, and I was there with playwrights from Estonia, Latvia, and Russia.  As we all got to know one another, we discovered a few key differences in our new play methodologies.  For one thing, in that part of the world the director is largely regarded as the final word, not the playwright.  Directors frequently change scripts drastically to suit their own vision, something that is not generally done in the American new play arena.  But perhaps more significantly, when I told these playwrights from Estonia, Latvia, and Russia that I was about to go to Chicago for a three-week rehearsal process and a four week run (by all accounts a typical rehearsal and performance process for a new play in America), they were shocked.  They are used to rehearsing plays for upwards of three to six months before a production, and their productions could run for years.  In some cases, after plays have been running for several years, the ages of the characters in the script are increased to account for the aging actors.  The idea that I was about to rehearse and mount a production from beginning to end in less than two months was absolutely astounding to them.

I struggled with this for a few days.  Why can’t we have these opulently long processes, too?  Why should we be expected to figure out a play in such a relatively short amount of time?  But as I walked into the rehearsal room at Victory Gardens, I realized that I was getting something that many writers at the Baltic Playwrights Conference never get: a second production.

To me, a second production isn’t just a luxury, it’s a necessity.  Maybe I’m just slower than other writers, but I never “figure out” a play in one production.  (My last play at Victory Gardens, THE WHALE, was a fourth production.  I worked directly with Joanie and the team on that production and did a number of rewrites, and the published version of that script is the Chicago version.)  An initial production of a new play is like using a recipe for the first time.  Much of it is trial-and-error, you’re learning how to use these new flavors and ingredients.  The second production is when you get to build on what you’ve learned the first time around, when you invite fresh voices into the room to reinvigorate and reinvestigate the play.  I did a somewhat hefty rewrite of REST before our first day of rehearsal, and since then I’ve been working with Joanie and our cast on further changes, deepening the lives of the characters and massaging the dynamics of the storytelling.  As a group, we’re rediscovering the play.

The great gift of this particular second production has been the team.  When I first worked with Joanie on THE WHALE a couple seasons ago, I knew I had found an important new collaborator.  Her keen instinct, depth of feeling and staggering intelligence pushes this play into new territory every day.  In addition, every cast member has been filling out the intricate worlds of their characters in a way that allows me to see the character more clearly, and to better understand the dynamics of the script. 

In America, playwrights may not have the luxury of rehearsing a play for months on end and running it for years.  But, when we’re lucky, we do have the luxury of seeing our work get mounted in different ways, by different groups of talented artists.  And in my experience, that’s the only way that my plays start to truly take shape.

Two American Generations Colliding by Isaac Gomez

First rehearsals are always exciting. From design presentations to a meet and greet with the Victory Gardens’ staff, there is always something electrifying about freshly laced spike tape outlining the parameters of the set, and actors fiercely highlighting their scripts in anticipation of that first read.

Before we began, Director Joanie Schultz shared a few words about the importance of the play and the way it resonates in the world today: she spoke briefly about the complexities surrounding Assisted Living, and the realities that face our loved ones afflicted with Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease; she touched on the life and music of Arvo Pärt, and the deep metaphors behind a whole rest note in music composition.

And once introductions had died down, and design renderings had circulated, everyone settled into their seats and those magic words were heard: “Rest. A play by Samuel D. Hunter.” And then something happened. The one thing this play speaks to, and one that continues to permeate the rehearsal space — A moment. A collective breath. A rest.

The play, though complex in nature, is not only a tender tribute to our elderly, but also to our millennials; two American generations colliding, both at crossroads, everyone in transition, and all searching, all hopeful.

The first week of rehearsal is a time for discovery. As we continue to learn more about the world of the play and its inhabitants, we begin to develop a deeper understanding of the profound messages Sam has left for us in the wake of his words. In just a few short weeks, we will be sharing that process with our patrons throughout preview performances of Sam Hunter’s Rest. It is within those crucial days that we are able to learn from our audiences — the final component of our process, and one of the most important.

We hope you will join us on this journey. We’d love to have you.

A Conversation with Small Fish Radio

In the beginning of August, Victory Gardens Theater will be hosting Small Fish Radio’s presentation of Mercury Considers the Last Layer as part of the Access Project. Our Artistic Programs Manager, Monty Cole, sat down with Trina Kakacek (Playwright/Adaptor) and MJ Kelly (Producer) about their upcoming live radio event.

Monty Cole: Thanks so much for talking with me today, guys. How long have you two been collaborating?

MJ Kelly: Well, we’ve been collaborating on other projects for about six or seven years. We’ve been doing Small Fish Radio since the spring of 2012.

Trina Kakacek: The first time we ever performed live was at the Chicago Fringe Festival in 2012.

MC: And what exactly brought along Small Fish Radio?

MJ: Well we saw that there were a lot of playwrights that we knew — a lot of writers and storytellers and singers just looking for a place to be heard. We thought this would be a new medium to use to give people exposure. So we decided to give voice to small fish in a big pond. It’s a way of giving emerging artists the opportunity to get their work produced. We fundraise and we pay every one of our artists. Even writers.

MC: Wow! Not every company in Chicago can say that. And the idea of using radio theatre to reach people with disabilities is pretty wonderful. It’s practically audio described by itself.

MJ: Yeah, we felt that way as well. We like the format. We normally have a variety show format, where we have a couple of short plays, a couple of stories, poetry, music — all together with some banter between hosts and the ensemble. We have a core ensemble of four actors and Mercury Considers the Last Layer is a bit of a departure in that we’re doing a full length adaptation. So we’re giving that a try.

TK: And it’s going really well so far. It’s actually quite a bit easier to do than the variety show format.

MC: What connects Small Fish Radio to the disabilities community?

TK: I was a part of [the Access Project] for about 15 years. I think because we’ve had so many friends in the Access Project it just became really natural for me to be able to write for that community.

MJ: Michael Herzowi is the lead actor in Mercury. He’s one of the actors in our troupe and he uses a wheelchair.

TK: We all kind of had a soft spot for radio theatre and I have a soft spot for live sound effects. MJ here read for, what was it? Lighthouse For the Blind?

MJ: Chris Radio–Chicagoland radio information service, which is now housed at Lighthouse for the Blind, so I read newspapers for the sight impaired for a number of years. So, we’ve always felt that this medium was allowing for not only our artist to be heard but for people who may not be able to get to the theatre to hear it. To hear the work. We’re not doing old time radio. We’re doing new work. Some of it is written specifically for [Small Fish Radio], some of it has been written and we’ve adapted it.

TK: We like the idea that it’s portable so you can take it with you. You can put it on your phone or your computer. And it’s portable theatre.

MC: So you can get it on itunes is that correct?

MJ: Yes. Small Fish Radio is our podcast and if you look up “Small Fish Radio Theatre” you can find it there.

TK: We also have archive options where you can listen straight from the website.

MC: Lets talk about Mercury a little bit. How long have you been writing this exactly?

TK: I wrote it four years ago maybe five. And then it got work-shopped at Infusion Theatre as a part of their new play development workshop a couple of years ago. Then I let it sit for a while. And we’re dealing with a big play and I wanted to make it shorter but I wasn’t’ sure about how to do that and then we decided to try it as a radio play because it does lend itself to that. It has a lot of sound; it has a lot of stage directions that are very visually descriptive. It kind of rewrote itself over the weekend. It was amazing. I thought it was going to take me weeks, but it took me two days to adapt it to radio because it was so much like a radio play already.

MJ: The stage directions in the play–the staged play—are very descriptive—very visual.

TK: And they’re funny.

MJ: And they’re funny and some of the things are even, “How are you going to do that on stage” kind of visuals.

MC: That’s great!

MC: The last thing I want to ask is, how do you find this to be a part of the Access Project? It’s come full circle in a way.

TK: The bottom line is that, the Access Project is this play’s home. It’s where I went from being a fiction writer to being a playwright. I went in there a million years ago with my first play, which looked more like a book that happened to have half the dialogue in it. I learned to switch from writing novels to writing plays there at the Access Project.

MC: You two have any final thoughts?

TK: I’d like to thank you guys for having us. I’m really excited that this play gets to be produced for the first time in its home.

MC: Definitely. It seems right.

TK: It does seem right.

Mercury Considers the Last Layer plays in the Zacek McVay Theater at Victory Gardens on August 3 at 7:30. ASL interpreters and Open Captioning will be available. Tickets are $10