Testament of Mary

Jane Press in Testament of Mary

Tonight, Aug. 12, is the opening night of The Testament of Mary in the interpretation of actress/playwright Jane Press, directed by Maryann Schaupp Rousseau. This one-woman show, served in the tiny magical box of the Carl Cherry Center’s theater, is a lovely treat audiences will not regret. 

Originally written by a Colm Tóibín, who conceived it as a 2012 novella, The Testament of Mary hit the stage even before the book hit the bookstores, produced in 2011 by the Dublin Theatre Festival, already as a one-woman play, starring Marie Mullen of the Druid Theatre Company. In 2013, the play was first performed on Broadway with Fiona Shaw (known as Petunia Dursley in the Harry Potter film series) as Mary and produced by American Scott Rudin, receiving three Tony Award nominations.

Then comes Jane Press and she is worth your every minute. 

Press owns her own theatrical company called Press the Button, where she seeks to put women over age 50 onstage. The Testament of Mary provides an outsized lead role perfect for the task, and Press proves that a woman after 50 can not only be the lead character, but also that she can conjure total theater just by herself. 

Press is the only person on stage, while hardly being the only character in the play. Stunningly beautiful, elegant, shabby, offended, picky, funny, gossipy, you name it—Press creates the whole of first-century Judea for viewers, conveying an array of characters and mores, as well as universal truths.

The idea for the plot is simple. We all know, presumably, how Jesus died and what happened, more or less on that day, in about 30 A.D. 

Catholic children—Tóibín, raised Catholic in Ireland, undoubtedly received such cultural education—spend a lot of time looking at dramatic expositions of the Stations of the Cross located around most Catholic churches. While it’s hard to listen sometimes, it’s not hard to wonder about some people in darkening images, many of them witnesses of the crucifixion: St. Veronica with her scarf that she offered to Jesus, Simon of Cyrene, who helps to carry the cross for a while…

Mary, Jesus' mother, was also there—station number four typically signifies the meeting with the mother. But overall, the agency of Mary and her reaction to her child’s suffering is largely absent from the story, Tóibín argues. There is no gospel of Mary; Mary doesn’t give her witness recorded by the New Testament. She can be prayed to, but she doesn't speak. What was she thinking that day? What would she have published, or chosen not to publish, on her Facebook/Twitter that night, 2,000 years ago?

There’s so little about her, Tóibín argues in a preface to the novella (which Janice Blaze Rock, responsible for graphics, printed in a booklet audience members will receive at the door). From it, we can learn about an elaborated cult of Mary as a suffering mother that has been part of Catholicism for centuries. It is visible mostly in music (Stabat Mater motif in music based on the 13th-century hymn) and in visual arts, often with adult Christ taken from the cross, in her arms. Her visual representations vary from Mary in the Church of the Holy Cross in Salamanca with several swords piercing her sorrowful heart to stunning Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. 

That’s not the Mary that Toibin and Press give us, and that’s not the Mary we are looking for when exploring our modern-day problems. Mater Dolorosa in grief as a sculpture is a saint out of this world, but Mary, the mother of Jesus—the troubled young man killed by the local government for causing trouble—is a scene from contemporary America.

In Tóibín's/Press' take, Mary is human. She is human when she suffers for him, but she is never more human when she betrays her son fearing the same end. She does it several times, first by staying in the crowd while he is being nailed to the cross, and then again, when she calculates, makes a decision and sneaks out to run away, far from Jerusalem, before he actually dies and is buried. It takes him a day, and she is painfully aware of that, and she makes sure we are aware. Speaking of pain, Press could put Mel Gibson’s bloodthirsty Passion to shame, being able to assault the audience with imagined, prolonged crucifixion.

Thank gods for the Cherry’s much-needed air conditioning; Jane Press will make you feel crucified and the end will provide a much-needed and unexpectedly Greek catharsis.

Press comes from a long line of great actresses and actors. Born in New York, she was on stage as a 13-year-old. In addition to Press the Button, she has been working with local children, including  the Children's Experimental Theatre in Carmel, since 2015. She has been also involved with Magic Circle Theatre in Carmel Valley and wrote My Mother’s Keeper, an autobiographical memory play directed by Robin McKee. 

The performance can be seen Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until Sept. 11. Friday and Saturday performances begin at 7:30pm, Sunday matinees at 3pm. The play is 90 minutes long. $23/general admission, $20/military. 233-1941, eventbrite.com

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