Protesters across the street from the Walter Kerr Theatre
Protesters across the street from the Walter Kerr Theatre
(© David Gordon)

The first preview of Broadway's The Testament of Mary, Colm Tóibín's revisionist look at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ from the point of view of his mother, the Virgin Mary, was greeted with protests by religious group The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property (TFP) outside the Walter Kerr Theatre on Tuesday, March 26. Protestors stood across the street from the Kerr, under the marquee of Longacre Theatre, making their opinions known as audiences entered. Their signs read, "We offer God this public act of reparation and vehemently protest against the blasphemous play The Testament of Mary."

Inspired by Tóibín's novel of the same title, the one-woman drama stars acclaimed Irish actress Fiona Shaw and is directed by her frequent collaborator, Deborah Warner. Shaw, whose work runs the gamut from the title role in Medea to Aunt Petunia in the Harry Potter film series, acknowledges that the piece, which deviates from the story told in The New Testament, has the potential for controversy, but doesn't believe that to be its purpose. "It does go off the page," Shaw told TheaterMania. "I hope that the sacrilege is not in any way undignified. It's sacrilege by imagination, not sacrilege by intent."

But some religious groups, like the TFP, think otherwise. The organization writes on its website, "The Testament of Mary deserves the most vehement and indignant repudiation from the faithful…[and we join with] …all God-fearing Americans to reject it." Similarly, a posting on the blog We Are the Salt, written by a self-described "radical Catholic striving to be salt and light in a secular world," accuses the play of being "yet another attempt to tear away the beliefs that we…hold in faith and truth." The same post later asks that its readers "take the time to pray for everyone involved with both this book and this play."

"At the end of the day," the website Renew America says, "The Testament of Mary is nothing but a testament of the secular left's hypocrisy, lies, cowardice, and venom…all pathetically hidden behind a patronizing veil of artistic expression and freedom which could only be admired by minds and hearts already filled with the very disrespect and bias it expresses and evokes."

Colm Tóibín and Fiona Shaw
Colm Tóibín and Fiona Shaw
(© David Gordon)
The producers of The Testament of Mary released the following statement in response to the March 26 protests. "The Testament of Mary explores, in a very serious way, something that matters deeply to all of us. It is neither anti-Mary nor anti-Christianity, but rather a portrait of a very human woman — a mother — who is trying to make sense of and come to terms with the tragic death of her son. We respect the right of protesters to express their viewpoint and ask that they come to our play with an open mind and let the work speak for itself."

Tóibín, who grew up in a Catholic household in Ireland, acknowledges that his play is controversial, but not the attempt at mockery many believe it to be. "I am working at a level of seriousness," he told TheaterMania in an earlier interview. "I'm not involved with jokes, mockery, or attempting to use my work to undermine what people believe in."

The Testament of Mary is not the first work inspired by religious texts to ignite controversy. Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi, which depicts the story of Jesus and the Apostles as gay men in contemporary Texas, was greeted with protests (by groups including the TFP) and death threats upon its original production at off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club. Out of fears of actual violence, MTC canceled the production, but quickly reversed their decision when the artists themselves, including McNally and playwrights Athol Fugard , Tony Kushner, and Craig Lucas, fired back with their own protests. The production subsequently sold out its entire run.