The audience can tour the stage in the 15 minutes before Mary begins her testament in The Testament of Mary at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre. The place is a marvel, a walk-through cabinet of wonders, like something between a Joseph Cornell box of oddities and an Italian Renaissance church. There's a live vulture, a bowl of grapes, a ladder laid on the ground, rolled cigarettes, a bathing sponge, sheafs of yellowed paper; there's also a kind of Plexiglas-enclosed altar, laid with candles, into which Fiona Shaw steps even as gawkers surround her, snapping smartphone photos. Sitting and wrapping the blue drapery of the Virgin Mary around her, Shaw becomes the holy mother of Jesus, her face lit in beatific tranquility, and we stare at her like tourists.
With the audience seated, though, this sacred tableau falls away, the candles are taken away, and the stage reveals itself to be a home, just a bare jumble of a room where the very earthly Mary, mourning mother of a dead son, lives out her days in grief and fury, watched over by unseen ''guardians'' who want her to stick to the company line: He is risen. He will return. She disagrees. It's this woman of flesh and fury who interests acclaimed Irish novelist Colm Tóibín. And biting into the faith-challenging monologue he wrote about this Mary with a voice, Shaw that towering Irish thespian works closely with her director and creative partner of the past quarter century, Deborah Warner, to make the holy mother very much a woman of naked flesh and raw emotions. She moves furniture, she eats and drinks, she totes crockery, she hauls barbed wire, she plunges into water, she knocks over tables, she makes as if to drive nails into her own body. The performance is riveting in its physicality. It's also so big and busy that one might wish poor Mary just tell her story sitting still; the words are taut enough.
The theatricality of Warner's vision, though, demands sculptural lighting (by Jennifer Tipton), haunting musical sound design (by Mel Mercier), and screens that move up and down, side to side, in Tom Pye's febrile set design, so that Mary moves through slashes and squares of light as she explains: She never liked those followers her son seemed to collect; she tried to get him to come home, away from danger; she saw what she saw (and didn't), and refuses to believe just for the sake of, well, the future of the world.
Through it all, Shaw is, yes, the marvel we have come to expect her to be, after following her in everything from Shakespeare on stage to My Left Foot and Harry Potter on screen. She's big, plain, direct, driven. While the set and light and sound and sensory abundance are cool and haunting, she could probably knock an audience out just standing stock still and reciting Tóibín's burning recitative. I pray she would. B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)