by Lynn on May 18, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

Nancy Palk; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann Nancy Palk; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Colm Tóibín
Directed by Aaron Willis
Set and lighting by Lorenzo Savoini
Costume by Gillian Gallow
Composed and sound designed by Richard Feren
Cast: Nancy Palk

A beautifully written play about the trials and anguish of Mary as she recalls her celebrated son—whose name she cannot speak–with a stirring, beautifully realized performance by Nancy Palk, in spite of the distracting, fussy direction and the totally annoying and unnecessary soundscape.

The Story. Mary is telling us about her celebrated son. She cannot bear to speak his name but we know who he is. She speaks of how he was a natural leader and how that success with the people would get him in trouble. Mary tried to warn him but he wouldn’t listen. He was crucified for it.

Mary also speaks of the two men who come asking for her memories of her son. They also seek her approval of their recollections. They give their remembrances of her son’s death when they weren’t there and she was. She is clear and firm in her dealing with them.

Mary remembers everything including things of which she is ashamed. But she won’t change them to suit the two men, disciples of her son. To Mary ‘words matter.’ To the men who come for approval they tell her that her son’s words will change the world. Her answer is brilliant.

The Production. Lorenzo Savoini’s set is rough-hewn. The walls look like uneven slabs of wood etc. There are many chairs positioned around the space, some at the back wall of the stage. There is a table stage left with chairs around it, one of which is on its side. Mary puts it in its proper upright position.

When Mary receives these two men we hear the loud sound of a heavy door opening off stage left. Light (Lorenzo Savoini) pours into the space and spreads across the back wall. It’s rather dramatic.

As Mary, Nancy Palk glides across upstage from left to centre and faces us, ready to tell her story. She wears a long earth-toned gown. She occasionally wraps a large warm shawl around her. Often she puts it on only to walk a few steps and take it off and throw it on one of the chairs.

Palk delivers Colm Tóibín’s elegant, thoughtful words in a honey-voice. Palk is a master of nuance and shading. She knows how to build a character with the minutiae of clues she finds in the text. In The Testament of Mary we meet a woman who was a loving mother; who cared passionately for her son; did the best for him to bear witness but knows her limitations. She also knows the danger of her son’s disciples and relies on her honesty to tell the truth about the story and not make anything up. Her recollections of his crucifixion are harrowing.

The play is directed by Aaron Willis whose work I have enjoyed in the past. Willis is a director with plenty of imagination who tries to serve the play. Something must have happened here. Richard Feren’s intrusive soundscape of throbbing beats and other effects underscores much of Mary’s monologue. The result is distracting and annoying rather than helpful.

Willis has Palk on the move seemingly for the whole performance, as if stillness in the telling is something to be avoided. Palk would speak sitting in a chair; get up and move to another chair for no reason; put on the shawl while walking; take it off and put it on a chair. Why? What is all that activity? It’s not a travelogue. It’s Mary’s testament about an emotional time in her life and as such should have our undivided attention in listening to her.

While Mary reiterates that words are important one almost gets the sense that Willis doesn’t trust one of the best actresses in the country to be able to speak them with authority and conviction and so adds distracting sounds and movement. Nancy Palk has enough of a challenge to present this long, harrowing testament without also having to fight against effects that are unhelpful.

Comment. Colm Tóibín has taken an interesting tack in writing about Christ’s last days, as seen through his mother’s clear eyes and not those starry orbs of Christ’s disciples who were not there, but want to present a glorified version of the story. Tóibín’s writing is poetic, lyrical, perceptive and artful. He tells a compelling story. Nancy Palk takes those words and tells that compelling story as well. I just wish that all that distracting ‘stuff’ was cut and the actress was trusted to tell it simply.

Produced by Soulpepper Theatre Company.

Opened: May 17, 2016.
Closes: June 18, 2016.
Cast: 1 glorious actress.
Running Time: 70 minutes.

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