“I will not say anything that is not true,” declares the biblical Mary in Irish novelist Colm Tóibín’s “Testament.”
The 80-minute, one-person play, set in a nonspecific era by Tóibín – author of “Brooklyn,” “Nora Webster” and other fiction – was first staged in Dublin in 2011 and retitled for Broadway in 2013 as “The Testament of Mary.” It’s receiving an assured, unsentimental production under Carey Perloff’s direction at American Conservatory Theater.
Mary is talking to the audience as though, perhaps, to confessors. What Christians have been taught about Jesus of Nazareth is presented here as a set of myths fabricated by his band of ruthless and opportunistic male followers.
And as performed by Canadian actor Seana McKenna with calm clarity and repressed emotion, Mary’s down-to-earth version of events seems plausible.
Mary is in a sort of house arrest, her prison represented (in Alexander V. Nichols’ abstract set design) by giant shards of what may indicate broken glass; a border of towering, geometric, wall-like structures; and a table and chair on a low platform.
She and has been ordered by her guards to write the officially sanctioned account of her son’s life and death. The account, she is told, will make what happened live forever, and will change the world. Mary is incredulous.
The stories that she relates are told by a mother whose grown son has veered off into a life that she finds mystifying, disturbing and deeply alienating.
Caught up in a wave of public adulation (he’s been labeled “King of the Jews” and “the son of God” by his supporters), the son rejects his own mother when she runs up to him at a wedding party to warn him of danger from the governing Romans and the Jewish elders. “Woman, what do I have to do with you?” he says coldly.
Mary’s description of the rise of Lazarus from the dead is especially gripping — horrifying, sad and perhaps miraculous, but not in a good way, not in the way the Bible tells it.
What registers most powerfully is the scene of the crucifixion. “How I could have watched and remained still … but that is what I did,” says Mary in wonderment, in Tóibín’s slightly formal speech pattern.
A shameful confession toward the end is shocking, and believable.
Whether or not you’ve ever wondered about Mary’s inner life, you’re likely to find Tóibín’s iconoclastic perspective provocative.
Presented by:American Conservatory Theater/Theatre Calgary
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, through Nov. 23
Tickets: $20 to $120
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org