NEW YORK — Sucking on a cigarette and swigging from a bottle of spirits, the Virgin Mary isn't looking all that virginal in Colm Tóibín's defiantly strange, inescapably controversial and at moments intensely gripping dramatic experiment "The Testament of Mary."
If she seems distinctly Irish that is because the play, which had its Broadway opening Monday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, is being performed by the powerhouse Irish actress Fiona Shaw, known to many as Harry Potter's aunt but awarded an honorary Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her stage genius.
Her fierce virtuosity transforms Tóibín's extended monologue into a full-blooded theatrical portrait. Alone onstage, she relives her famous son's story not as it has been officially passed down by the Gospel writers but as she experienced it with a mother's grieving heart.
Delivering her version of events in the shadows of those standing guard of New Testament orthodoxy, this solitary and subversive Mary combines the sorrowful bitterness of Medea with the brooding frustration of Hedda Gabler and the indomitable chattiness of Winnie from Beckett's "Happy Days" — three characters Shaw has put her inimitable stamp on.
But the incantatory power of her acting recalls even more another of her grand achievements in the theater with director Deborah Warner, her rendition of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," a project in which Shaw channeled voices and issued forth presences like a medium at a turbo-charged séance.
Warner's production, directed with the meticulous scenic care of an art installation, first presents Mary as she has been traditionally presented — as a symbol of maternal love and purity. Before the play begins, audience members are invited to come up on the stage and view the artifacts, which include Shaw herself, head draped and holding flowers, on display as Mary in a glass box.
The term "icon" has lost much of its meaning, but the original Madonna has a claim on the word that supersedes even that of the pop star who impertinently borrowed her name. The Renaissance masters have given us countless images of Jesus' mother, but their depictions are voiceless. She is an object, not a subject.
In "The Testament of Mary" she does something that is almost unimaginable — she speaks. And the words Tóibín gives her are not at all what we might expect. They are highly opinionated, often exasperated and anything but meek and mild.
She refers to the retinue Jesus has acquired as a "group of misfits." She says that whenever she has seen more than two men together she has seen "foolishness" and "cruelty." And she speaks disdainfully of all "the high-flown talk" of miracles that has the authorities anxiously tracking her son's every move.
This Mary scorns religious zeal. "Something about the earnestness of those young men repelled me, the sense that there was something missing in each one of them," she says of her son's followers who flocked to her home to sit at his feet. And the way Jesus talked to these visitors, "his voice all false, and his tone all stilted," bothered her in no small part because it excluded her.
The guiding perspective here is female-centered rather than feminist. Mary trusts her senses more than she trusts the ideologies of men. But for all her independence, she is first and foremost a mother recounting her futile and self-professedly unheroic attempts to save her son's life.
There's something inherently dangerous in creating a drama around the Blessed Virgin Mary, as she is known by the Catholic faithful. Yet the tone is too compassionate for blasphemous intentions.
Tóibín's play, which exists in an extended form as a novel, is part of a tradition of religious art that wants to examine biblical stories from a more realistic perspective. Caravaggio's "The Death of the Virgin," with its stark depiction of Mary's bodily remains and its prioritizing of the seen world over the unseen world, would seem to have provided the playwright with a daring model.
But just as Caravaggio includes a faint halo in his painting, Tóibín leaves enough ambiguity for miraculous possibilities. The rising of Lazarus, harrowingly recounted by Mary, may not have happened exactly as recorded, but something occurred that challenged the natural order in a way that is far more frightening than a believer would care to acknowledge. (Lazarus' post-resurrection wailing and difficulty in swallowing tell a chilling tale.)
As for the conception story, Shaw's Mary injects a note of sly sarcasm as she recalls the official doctrine being explained to her. "I barely listened," she says. "I knew what happened."
Tóibín's writing is elegant, rhythmic and vivid, but it's prose by a fiction writer and essayist whose primary medium is the page. His text, though it started as a play, is more impressive as a novel. In its dramatic format, there's an occasional choppiness to the transitions and the ending is abrupt.
Warner is an ideal collaborator for Tóibín because she's able to set the beauty of his language theatrically aloft in a production that makes the minimalist most of its resources on Tom Pye's dreamscape set, in which a ladder and the memory of an "indignant bird" feeding on the bodies of hares are all that's needed to invoke the crucifixion.
Jennifer Tipton's painterly lighting, Ann Roth's spare costume design (inspiring Shaw to become another character with the simple addition of fabric draped over a shoulder) and Mel Mercier's original music and sound design establishing the eerie atmosphere of a religious thriller all help to create stunning tableau effects.
But "The Testament of Mary" belongs to Shaw, one of the most versatile and commanding stage actresses in the English-speaking world. Her voice infuses Tóibín's writing with living color and her emotion forcefully clarifies the point of this risky and very un-Broadway-like theatrical endeavor — to find grace and redemption in the honesty of flesh and blood.