The Testament of Mary Review - A Stunning, Unheard Story

Never, after any performance have I been so fascinated with someone’s hair: after seeing Linda Reiter perform as the title character in The Testament of Mary (written by Colm Tóibín, and directed by Dennis Začek), I could write a dissertation about her hair, how it changed, and what it all meant in the simplicity of its change. Every element of this one-woman show - from the blocking to the design, to the text to every directorial choice - was elegantly simple. Elegant and raw, bitter and soft, this play strips us of our presuppositions of the Marian iconography and mythology to reveal an emotionally bruised woman, a real person. The writing, adapted from Tóibín’s novel, tackles fanaticism and mob mentality, the female voice in history, and the persistence of political agenda over individuals, but without any tone of agitprop or exclusion of faith. I (as an ever-curious agnostic) was accompanied by my fellow theatre artist and friend (a Christian) and it inspired us both as people, thinking and feeling.

 

Linda Reiter as Mary

This play was largely Mary divulging her secret truths, opinions, and acts that she hid from the world and herself to us, the audience. If it had been any other show, I would have dug into the structure/inciting incident for this testimony/who are we as the audience supposed to be/etc., however, this writing was so truthful in its frankness and universal in its metaphors that I did not care. After bathing onstage during preshow, Reiter dries herself off, puts on a plain robe (dark red, not light blue), and simply begins. And I’m in, invested in this one-sided conversation. Enhancing this investment is Christopher Ash’s projection design and Michael Rourke’s lighting design, seamlessly transitioning through moods and echoes of memory, washing the stage with Mary’s isolation, rage, and release. During her brutal and precise description of her son’s crucifixion, a gnarled tree pulsates a blood red on the psych at the back of the theatre, subtly imbuing this speech with the horrific amount of time it takes to watch her son die. The set design, also by Ash, kept the play grounded in a much more elemental atmosphere: the pool of water for Mary to bath, the amount of (what appeared to be) desert fauna, all of the furniture and the walls made of thick wood, the candles that never went out set Mary on earth, instead of in someone else’s story.

 

Christopher Ash's earthy set design

Her story was made all the more human by her hair: after thoroughly cleansing herself (hugely symbolic) in the preshow, we see her naked body veiled in shadow, then dressed with her hair slicked back with water, giving Reiter’s gorgeously austere face the frankness and spirit necessary to carry this show. As her hair starts to dry and loosen through the performance, so does her wall of silence crumble as she details moments and withheld thoughts on her unnamed son, his apostles, and all their disciples. Her hair dries around her face, and she softens and purges all of her secrets, leaving her completely cut open and beautiful - and with her final realization, she takes up the iconic blue veil to mortar herself into her elected silence. It is this minute detail, amidst others, that makes Začek’s direction resound. In the London version at the Barbican earlier this year, Fiona Shaw - power house that she is - fully embodied all the other characters, used live vulture and explored all the Marian iconography in her physical performance. In no way do I disparage that choice, but I didn't need that. Reiter was so gripping in her straight forward delivery that this production demanded minimal theatricality, and every subtle spectacle was perfectly tuned with this show. 

 

Reiter recalling Michelangelo's 'Pieta'

Real Talk: Go see this brutally honest story of an otherwise voiceless, famous figure. Reiter’s performance is a treasure to value and experience.

The Testament of Mary runs from now until December 14 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N Lincoln Ave. For more information, times, and tickets call the box office at 773-871-3000 or visit the Victory Gardens website 

 

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