Seana McKenna has spent much of her career playing strong women. But none may be as strong – or as iconic – as the role she’s taking on this month at American Conservatory Theater.
Starring in “Testament” by Irish author and playwright Colm Tóibin, McKenna is playing Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ.
Directed by ACT artistic director Carey Perloff, who describes it as “a solo show with an epic reach,” the play puts Mary center stage to tell her side of the events leading to her son’s crucifixion and resurrection.
McKenna, long considered one of Canada’s leading stage actors, says it’s a tremendous role.
“She’s one of those great, fierce heroines,” says McKenna, who returns to San Francisco following a run in the title role of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and her Children” at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in her native Ontario.
“Like Mother Courage, she has humor and irony, rage and bite,” she continues. “She’s ordinary, but she has a lyricism inside her. And this is her one chance to speak her own history.”
In her grief, Mary believes her son has been taken from her by fanatics.
McKenna, who is married to stage director Miles Potter and has a teenage son of her own, says the play has universal resonance in a world beset by religious wars. “All of those young men have mothers,” she notes.
“Testament” premiered at Ireland’s Dublin Theatre Festival in 2011. It was revised and re-titled “The Testament of Mary” for a 2013 run on Broadway, where it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play.
Tóibin, who also wrote the story as a 2012 novella, makes Mary’s grief and bewilderment both powerful and immediate, says McKenna.
“The language is beautiful – spare, precise and evocative,” she says.
The new production restores some of the text from the Dublin production, and reunites McKenna and Perloff, who previously collaborated on ACT’s production of Racine’s “Phèdre” in 2010.
“Carey’s totally collaborative,” says McKenna. “She has endless energy. Her intellect is fierce, and her sense of humor is a blessing.”
Once the curtain rises, though, McKenna’s Mary will be all alone onstage to tell her story.
Solo shows “are always a little terrifying,” she admits. “But it’s always lovely to have that relationship with the audience.”
IF YOU GO
Where: American Consevatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays through Sundays; closes Nov. 23
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org