Have Faith in Shannon Kearns' Star Turn in Controversial Testament of Mary

Shannon Kearns is a Mary quite contrary to the gospels in The Testament of Mary at Undermain Theatre.
Shannon Kearns is a Mary quite contrary to the gospels in The Testament of Mary at Undermain Theatre.
Katherine Owens

The woman we meet in Irish-born writer Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary is no ethereal virgin. She's a pissed-off mother of a wayward son, tired of the "misfits" who followed him around, angry that 20 years after his death she's a prisoner of apostles who just want her to get the story straight.

Undermain Theatre has done everything right in its regional premiere of Tóibín's 75-minute monologue, starting with director Katherine Owens' casting of Dallas actress Shannon Kearns in the title role. Kearns brings fury to the part, but it is calibrated to the millisecond. She hits emotions in a slow build punctuated by an occasional flash of dark humor. Kearns' eyes get fiery, then moments later brim with tears. Her hands, strong not delicate, claw the air with anger. As she speaks Tóibín's exquisitely simple and poetic words, her voice stays clear and deep. What a performance.

In our first glimpse of Kearns as Mary before the show, she sits silently at the back of Undermain's subterranean acting space. Her head bows under a blue robe flowing off her shoulders into a sea of fabric that covers the stage. We're encouraged to wander past her as she sits so still she could be a Marina Abramovic performance-art installation.

Then the play begins. The robe disappears, revealing a simply furnished room, and we are introduced to a Mary in a plain black dress, head wrapped in a fringed scarf. This Mary is sturdy, not saintly. When she gestures so hard she knocks a pottery bowl off the table and it shatters, she picks up the pieces, sweeps up the crumbs and calmly forms wet clay into coils and makes another. (Scenery, costumes and lighting are all by John Arnone and flawless in every detail.)

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We are addressed as visitors to Mary in exile. She's eager to talk, spilling torrents of conversation about events that led to her son's death. And that's what she calls him — "my son, I cannot say his name."

Mary's not happy in her new home, where she keeps an empty chair at the table in the Jewish tradition. What really bugs her is being interrogated by the pair of apostles who quiz her for details to put in the New Testament. She doesn't like being pressured to validate miracles she doesn't think happened, including her son's unusual conception. "I was there," she says.

Her gospel is different from the story the apostles want the world to hear. "Not one of you is normal," Mary says to them. She seems to regard them, with the possible exception of her friend Mary Magdalene, as cult members exploiting myths to gain power. (The way she talks, her son sounds like L. Ron Hubbard, the apostles are the Sea Org and she has been thrown into "the Hole" for extra auditing.)

It's an intense piece of drama, this little play. Tóibín debuted it in Dublin and had it published as an 81-page novella that was shortlisted for the 2013 Booker Prize. It received short runs on London and New York stages starring Irish actress Fiona Shaw and drew scathing reviews in the religious press. One Catholic publication called it "a piece of Catholic-hating detritus." (Undermain has gotten heat, too; enough to warrant police presence at opening night and inspections of bags in the lobby.)

But The Testament of Mary isn't sacrilegious; it's merely a rational piece of alternative reporting. In the intimate environs of Undermain, we are drawn in by this Mary's honesty — and by Kearns' astonishing acting — as she blames herself for not saving a rebellious son from destructive forces. As for his death saving the souls of all mankind? "I will say that it was not worth it," she says, sounding less like a saint than a loving, grieving human being.


The Testament of Mary continues through April 11 at Undermain Theatre, 3200 Main St. Tickets, $15-$30, at 214-747-5515 or undermain.org.

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