Dallas — Before the play begins, ushers encourage audience members to walk around John Arnone’s cavernous, open set. The few objects are suggestive—a wooden table and chairs, and several huge earthen jugs set amongst Undermain Theatre’s heavy concrete pillars. Then on the far side of the space, facing away from the seats and guarded by two men in dark robes, we see the subject of Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary.
A seated woman in an iconic blue robe, her head and part of her face covered modestly with a rich blue cloth with gold trim, stares past us and into space. We sit down, the light shifts and the seated figure walks across a space filled with rolls of something vaguely malleable, and into the lighted area where she sits at the table directly in front of us. Shannon Kearns, in a dark dress and head cloth, her lovely oval face still and intent, her wide eyes gazing directly at us, begins to speak—and to hold us with her vivid honesty for a riveting 85 minutes.
Mary’s voice is matter-of-fact, a low-register sharpness in the stillness created around her own quiet intensity. The mother of Jesus is stoical, down-to-earth, and determined to tell us what she remembers of her son’s life in Nazareth, and the horror of his death. Many years have passed, and now she is living alone in Ephesus cared for by disciples of her martyred son who seek to record what she says about his death. She cannot bear to speak his name. She says only “my son” or the distant third person in recounting the grief and terrible strangeness of the last days of his life. “Maybe before I die I will say his name, but I do not think so,” she says, her clenched hands white from wringing.
Immediately we understand that she considers herself a kind of special prisoner. “I am being cared for and questioned softly,” she says of her guardians. “They think I do not know the nature of their elaborate questions,” she tells us, Kearns’ voice deepening further to disdain. She’s not interested in collaborating with the men who will write their own version of her son’s life and death in what will become the New Testament.
She doesn’t trust these men or others of their kind. She recalls her son growing up in Nazareth as a graceful, gifted and good-mannered young man who “could do anything.” She was instantly suspicious of the “misfits” who began to gather round him, not one of which “could look a woman in the eye.” She had no use for any of them. “Not one of you is normal,” she told them. She warned her son about “these mystics you’ve gathered,” and that it would “lead to catastrophe.” Her face flushed with anger and remorse, Mary says she should have “paid more attention” to these restless men, always talking of the future.
She zealously keeps one chair empty. “This is the chair in which no one sits. I keep this chair empty because he will not come back,” she says. When the men tell her that “he will return,” she scornfully tells them that the chair is for her husband and he will not. She coolly produces a short, thick knife from her dress, and tells us the men have been warned that she will use it if they “so much as touch it.”
Kearns’ Mary is a woman made strong by the grief of a mother who witnessed her child’s hideously cruel death. No kindly, all-forgiving saint, this Mary rather is a flesh and blood woman whose haunted memories tell a wrenching human story. And tell it she does. From the early days in Nazareth to the miracles and the contexts in which they occurred, she refuses to allow her guards to distort what she saw and felt. Her telling of the story of Lazarus raised from the dead is brilliant poetry made theater.
Director Katherine Owens has the tightened the whole production to keep us focused on Kearns and her extraordinary embodiment of Mary. From Arnone’s scenic and lighting design to Bruce Dubose’s delicately nuanced sound design, all props, costumes and effects echo and enhance the actor’s every word and gesture. This may be a one-woman show, but the depth of the production makes us feel even more the weight of the matter it treats, with both dignity, eloquence and a piercing insight into the shattering human tragedy of every martyred saint.
Tóibín’s play, nominated for a Best Play Tony Award in 2013, premiered in 2011 in a shorter form in Ireland, where he grew up. Tóibín turned it into a novel in 2012, and as such, it was short-listed for the Mann-Booker Prize. Meryl Streep read the audio version of the book. Fiona Shaw starred on Broadway. The work has a rich pedigree —and Undermain just made it even richer.