If you believe that one of the purposes of art is to shake you out of your comfort zone and make you question long-held assumptions, then you should consider checking out The Saviour, the provocative two-hander making its world stage premiere at Irish Repertory Theatre after premiering online at last year’s Cork Midsummer Festival. In 70 gripping minutes, Deirdre Kinahan’s play touches on quite a few inflammatory hot-button issues while always remaining firmly rooted in finely observed character study.
We first see the main character of Kinahan’s play, Máire (Marie Mullen), in bed on her 67th birthday, taking drags from a cigarette in a state of postcoital afterglow. She has just slept with Martin, the younger man she’s recently met at church, and she says this is the first time she’s felt genuine pleasure from sex — a feeling she apparently never felt while married to her late husband, Colm, for many years.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg regarding the biographical details that spill out during the play’s first half, a long monologue in which she talks directly to Jesus. She recalls a childhood filled with parental neglect — her mother dying when she was young and her father throwing her into a convent when he decided to move to England for work — as well as physical abuse at the convent, which was in reality one of the infamous Magdalene laundries. Through it all — even after meeting and marrying Colm and then moving to the US for a while before moving back to Ireland — Jesus remains the one she has the most enduring relationship with … at least until Martin comes into her life.
From the outside, Máire’s religious fanaticism might be off-putting, if not outright insane (early on in the first half, she vocalizes her belief that Jesus resides in Tibet, for instance). But Kinahan refuses to characterize her that way, instead having her character lay out the details of her troubled life in a way that allows us to empathize with her. Mullen’s performance does that too: Máire’s sense of delight at feeling something like ecstasy for the first time in a long while is palpable, casting a warm glow even during her most brutal reminiscences.
But The Saviour is indeed a two-hander, and midway through, another character appears: Mel (Jamie O’Neill), Máire’s son. Though at first his visit seems innocuous enough — he has a birthday present to give her — gradually he gets to the real reason for his appearance: to divulge what he has discovered about Martin’s seedy past. The bombshell Mel drops (I won’t spoil it here) would make most people turn away from that person without a second thought. Not Máire, though, who firmly believes that no one is beyond saving and thus chooses to assume that Martin is worthy of forgiveness.
This electrifying confrontation is where Kinahan’s decision to center the first half of her play entirely on Máire truly pays off. Even as the indignant Máire hurls homophobic invective at her gay son and doubles down on her religiosity, she never fully loses our sympathy because we’ve come to understand the biographical and emotional circumstances that have led to this arguably warped moral perspective. Kinahan’s characterization of Mel also adds to the sense of heartbreak in this scene: Here is a man who still, deep down, cares about his mother even though he has kept his distance from her for his own mental well-being. O’Neill touchingly evokes that sense of weariness mixed with genuine concern to his performance, holding his own against a force-of-nature Mullen.
Director Louise Lowe has supported her two actors with a relatively no-frills production. Scenic and lighting designer Ciarán Bagnall houses both Máire’s bedroom and her dining room on a single turntable set, upon which Bagnall occasionally dims and colors the lights to haunting effect during her darker recollections. Costume designer Joan O’Clery has given Mullen a shiny salmon-colored slip to evoke Máire’s feelings of rejuvenation, in stark contrast to O’Neill’s more sober everyday attire. Aoife Kavanagh’s sound design is most noteworthy of all, however, with occasional ambient soundscapes of urban, convent, and country life crescendoing and waning in concert with Máire’s memories. It’s fully in keeping with a production that remains sensitive to character even as it challenges its audience to question, among other things, their own limits of forgiveness.