On January 31, 1984, 15-year-old Ann Lovett quietly entered the grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary near her hometown of Granard, Ireland. She gave birth in front of the statue of Mary shortly before both she and her child died. This terrible story became a rallying cry for pro-choice activists in the runup to Ireland's 2018 referendum to legalize abortion (Lovett's death took place just months after a similar referendum enshrined in the Irish constitution the unborn's right to life). It is also the basis of Ciara Ní Chuirc's thoughtful and harrowing Made by God, now making its New York debut at Irish Repertory Theatre.
Framing this true story is the fictional one of Eva (Erica Hernandez), a religious podcaster on a special trip to Ireland to uncover details about Ann Lovett, right before the Irish prepare to vote. She interviews Ann's former boyfriend, Michael (a gentle and sympathetic Ciaran Byrne). Now in his 50s, he believes she gave birth in the grotto as an act of protest. Flashback scenes to 1984 depict young Mikey (baby-faced Daniel Marconi) and Ann (McKenna Quigley Harrington, volatile and vulnerable). They daydream about the future, they quarrel, and then she appears at his house late one night after a terrible incident about which she swears him to secrecy.
All the while, the stage is watched over by the Virgin Mary herself (Briana Gibson Reeves as the sassiest Madonna this side of the Hudson). She seems to have a special connection with Eva, speaking directly to her and giving her instructions. The podcaster tries to quiet these "intrusive thoughts" with medication. "Either they're intrusive thoughts," the Virgin reasons, "or I am intruding into your thoughts." You have a point, Mary.
Director Olivia Songer stealthily, almost imperceptibly draws us into the mystery of Ann's death and why Eva is so obsessed with it. The grotto is the central feature of Lindsay Fuori's set, and it is always in the background, even when the action shifts to a pub or recording studio. Danielle Elegy's intimate lighting illuminates the hazy world of memory, while Orla Long's casual costumes subtly distinguish between scenes set in the '80s and those in 2018. Carsen Joenk's unsettling sound design puts us in Eva's headspace so we're right there with her during what can only be described as an Ayahuasca trip brought to you by Eli Lilly.
Hernandez is remarkably well-cast as Eva, exuding the nervous energy of that girl in high school with perfect attendance, who never got lower than an A- on anything. As Covid has shown, breakdowns in rules and rationality can be very upsetting for such people — and Hernandez powerfully pulls us into the deep end of Eva's crisis of faith.
Ní Chuirc deftly uncovers the classist assumptions that cloud the debate around abortion, in which well-to-do people on all sides think they know what is in the best interest of poor women. In a scene set in a "crisis pregnancy center," a teenager reveals that she is pregnant with her stepfather's child, and the counselor dimly offers, "A baby is a blessing. I think she will surprise you. Your mother." Will she?
The audible scoffs suggest that the off-off-Broadway audience has an opinion, but Made by God is definitely one of those plays that will be received differently by different crowds (I would love to see a production in my second home, Malta, where abortion is still illegal).
As our own Supreme Court seems poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, this emotionally fraught issue is not going away. When we debate, we shouldn't forget about women like Ann Lovett. Made by God forces us to consider what we might do in their impossible situation.