Colm Toibin’s ‘Testament of Mary’ brings Jesus’ mother down to earth

How far can one go in retelling a Bible story, adding things that are not in the original? In “The Testament of Mary,” Colm Toibin goes a long way.

His 2012 book is now a Broadway play presenting a view of the mother of Jesus so different from pious tradition that it angers some Christians, creating a “new,” intellectually and spiritually challenging Virgin Mary.

Yet in the end, Toibin’s searingly human Mary may be more accessible than the Mary of porcelain perfection set high on a pedestal.

The Irish writer, who has written about his strong Catholic childhood, imagines Mary 30 years after the crucifixion of her son. She lives as a prisoner of two of Jesus’ disciples, still mourning her son’s death, bitter at what has happened since, and seeking consolation from pagan idols, which make more sense to her than what happened to Jesus.

While the book seems to slog through Mary’s angry “testament,” the play, which opened April 22 at the Walter Kerr Theater in New York, lets actress Fiona Shaw (“True Blood,” “Harry Potter”), in a virtuoso performance, infuse the aging Mary’s monologue with intense power and passion.

The play begins with her sitting piously, the familiar blue cloak over her head and shoulders; but she soon casts this off to reveal a woman in work clothes.

This Mary is a mother grieving and angry about the path taken by her son. She dismisses the disciples as a “bunch of misfits” and oddballs. She warned Jesus not to do the water-into-wine miracle at the wedding in Cana, knowing it would draw unwelcome attention to him.

Raising Lazarus from the tomb was an even bigger blow because people then began to call him son of God. “You are in great danger,” she tells him and begs him to stop preaching. He ignores her, but she cannot get over the thought that she should have done more to save his life.

Roman Catholic protesters stood across the street from the theater as the play began previews in March, chanting rosaries and bearing signs label the play “blasphemy.”

But the Bible itself says almost nothing about Mary after the crucifixion of Jesus. Legend has it she lived out her life in Ephesus, the scene of Toibin’s play. Christians have revered what they believe to be Mary’s piety, even giving her the title “Mother of God.”

Reflecting on her son’s miracles, she senses something transcendent, but cannot make the leap to believe what others say he was.

Seeing Mary as one who cannot find faith rather than as the model of perfect faith is unsettling. But Toibin’s work is nonetheless moving, for once he prompts us, it is not hard to imagine a mother whose grief leads not to faith, but to anger.

Perhaps Toibin’s Mary stands in for those who catch only a glimpse of the divine, who might want to believe, but cannot.