WATERTOWN — “Grief,’’ Joan Didion has written, “turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.’’
In Colm Toibin’s “The Testament of Mary,’’ now at New Repertory Theatre, the topography of grief encompasses not just unappeasable sadness and a sense of loss but also racking currents of guilt, anger, doubt, regret, and despair. That the figure experiencing this wave of emotions is Mary, mother of Jesus, adds a substantial extra wallop to our experience of the play.
This is not the usual portrait of Mary, to say the least. Devout believers have vehemently protested Toibin’s deviations from scriptural accounts. But it’s not an artist’s duty to affirm the beliefs of the faithful, and in any case “The Testament of Mary’’ is neither sensationalistic nor disrespectful to Mary.
On the contrary, Toibin’s overall moral seriousness is palpable, as is the Irish author’s admiration for and fascination with the mind, heart, and spirit of a woman who, he told me in an interview last week, “haunts my dreams.’’ In this stage adaptation of his 2012 novella of the same name, Toibin tries to imagine how it felt for Mary the person — as opposed to Mary the silent icon — when her beloved son was swept up in a maelstrom of events that ended in his brutal death.
The result, in a New Rep production directed by Jim Petosa and starring Paula Langton as Mary, is deeply moving. Langton, also seen at New Rep in “Assassins,’’ “Bakersfield Mist,’’ and “Amadeus,’’ is delivering the first solo performance of her career, and she periodically tripped over her lines during opening night of the 95-minute monologue. But they seemed like the kind of glitches that subsequent performances will iron out. Langton is largely convincing as a very human Mary, struggling to make sense of the trauma that upended her life.
Petosa’s staging is effectively somber, simple, and restrained, augmented by Matthew Guminski’s carefully nuanced lighting and Dewey Dellay’s subtly expressive music and sound design. The director allows Toibin’s Mary to speak for herself, avoiding the pitfalls of Deborah Warner’s 2013 Broadway production, starring Fiona Shaw.
That production, which closed very quickly, was criticized for an overly elaborate, metaphor-heavy set design. At New Rep, the set by Ryan Bates is suitably spare and bleak: a boulder, an upstage wall, a wooden I-beam emerging from the stage. The beam — also used in the just-ended “Via Dolorosa,’’ the first play in New Rep’s Next Rep Black Box Festival, of which “The Testament of Mary’’ is the second — represents the cross on which Jesus was crucified. Langton’s Mary flinches the first couple of times she looks at it.
Enfolded in a cloak and sometimes sinking to her knees, Langton’s Mary speaks as if she is simultaneously inside a terrible dream and describing that dream. She gives her own accounts of the water-into-wine episode during the wedding at Cana, the Apostles (“misfits,’’ she calls them) who began to cluster around her son, the raising of Lazarus, her son’s growing renown. Langton brings a narrative urgency to Mary’s description of the tumult that escalated as followers began to call Jesus the Son of God, culminating with his agonizing crucifixion at Calvary; the fear she felt as danger surrounded her; and the action she took in response — in this version of events, fleeing before he died — which still fills her with shame.
The actress endows Mary with the dogged honesty of a woman determined to tell her story — to give her own testament — in the face of Gospel writers who, she clearly suspects, are trying to take the story from her and fashion it to their own ends. But Langton also conveys the wounded quality of a mother whose anguish is still so raw, years after the crucifixion, that even as she talks and talks of Jesus, she is unable to speak his name.
“Our son, our son, our son, I cannot say his name,’’ she says. “It will not come. Something will break in me if I say his name.’’
THE TESTAMENT OF MARY
Play by Colm Toibin. Directed by Jim Petosa. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Black Box Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through Feb. 28. Tickets $25-$36, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.