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Theatre in Review: The Saviour (Irish Repertory Theatre)

Marie Mullen. Photo: Carol Rosegg

Each time we meet up with Marie Mullen, she has advanced another generation, but her remarkable talent remains evergreen. In 1998, she stunned New York audiences as the frustrated, ultimately homicidal spinster in Martin McDonough's The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In 2017, she returned to the play, this time as the vicious, needy, passive-aggressive mother, scoring another major success. At the Irish Rep these nights, she is Máire, a widow and grandmother simultaneously experiencing a sexual awakening and bitter tragedy in Deirdre Kinahan's ambitious but skittery new play. If, this time, she has something less than a masterpiece to work with, Mullen still knows how to shake up a theatre.

When we first see Máire, she is sitting up in bed, contentedly smoking a cigarette, looking like the cat who swallowed a pitcher of cream. Staring at the crucifix on the wall, she says, "So am I gone to the dogs altogether at the end? Or is this right?" No, she isn't talking to herself. One reason the play is titled The Saviour is that Máire is given to conducting long conversations with Jesus Christ about every detail of her existence. Right now, Topic A is the spectacular sex she has just enjoyed with her friend Martin, and her manner of expression -- ribald, robust, and vividly detailed -- is about as far from the rosary as one can get.

A wild night of love is a wholly unforeseen turn of events for Máire, for whom "sex has always been a matter of mechanics." Decades of marriage never yielded such pleasures. Indeed, since her husband's death, her expectations in the bedroom department have been nil. But then Martin -- whom, ironically, she met in church -- made her dinner and, clasping her hands in prayer, covered her with kisses. Not that there weren't some bumps on the road to ecstasy. "There were a lot of broken dishes," she recalls. "But I couldn't quite make it up onto the table...I wasn't able...and I kept thinking about those placemats with their embossed pictures of the Vatican, so I halted all proceedings and led him up the stairs like a woman possessed."

For the first half of The Saviour, Máire is the entire show, and she makes for excellent, often hilarious, company, whether regaling us with the details of sex with Martin or urging Christ not to be jealous because he will always be her number-one. ("Martin came to me through you," she suggests. "I'm guessing that this is part of the plan? A form of evangelizing, perhaps.") And when the mood darkens and Máire recalls the ugly details of childhood abandonment, leading to Dickensian scenes of cruelty in a Magdalen laundry, Mullen is thoroughly riveting.

But with the change in tone comes a certain weakening of the play's structure. Máire thinks Martin is in the kitchen, making coffee; in fact, he has vanished, without explanation. (I, for one, wondered if he might not be imaginary.) Instead, her son, Mel, is on hand, with dire news to impart. I won't go into the details, but Mel has conclusive evidence that Martin is a danger to Máire and, even worse, to the beloved grandchildren she regularly minds at home.

As powerful a bombshell as this is, the back-and-forth between Máire and Mel has an awkward, rather mechanical quality as mother and son lob accusations that aren't fully explored. The predictable volleys ("No, I won't hear it." "You've got to hear it.") are not smoothed by Louise Lowe's direction nor by Jamie O'Neill, who, as Mel, never gets into a solid dramatic rhythm with Mullen. After its captivating opening, the later, more dramatic portion of The Saviour feels saggy and overloaded; the problem, I think, is that Kinahan tries to force into her modest two-hander all the ghosts that haunt modern Ireland -- the constricting piety, the institutional brutality, and the epidemic sexual abuse of children. Máire, a survivor of Ireland's harsh, poverty-stricken theocracy, is pitted against Mel, who, living with his husband, is emblematic of the progressive, forward-looking country that has emerged in recent decades. It's more than this modest piece can handle, and certain potentially interesting narrative threads, such as the relatively happy American interlude enjoyed by Máire and her husband, are given short shrift.

Still, the cornered Máire's counterpunching is something to see. A notably poorly integrated personality, she ultimately explodes, sending shards of fury and denial in all directions. In Mullen's hands, she is especially intimidating when venting her rage at being written off as an old lady or, abandoning any pretense of maternal affection, hurling homophobic epithets at Mel. It's a pyrotechnic performance by a formidable talent at the peak of her powers.

The production is well-served by Ciarán Bagnall's scenery, which places Máire's bedroom and kitchen on a turntable, as well as his lighting, which works color temperature contrasts of white light to maximum effect. Aoife Kavanagh's sound design -- including birdsong, music, laughing children, and a low, dread-inducing hum -- adds to the unsettling mood. Joan O'Clery's costume design -- especially Máire's peach-colored peignoir and robe, which Mel treats like a scarlet A -- is a fine piece of work.

Lowe also manages some interesting images, for example, mother and son on opposite sides of a wall, sadly aware that they are separated by so much more. But Mullen is the main event here and she does not disappoint. "Is that the plan, Jesus?" she asks, praying for some escape from the annihilating truth. "You need to answer. Why don't you answer?" She makes Máire's pain and confusion impossible to ignore. --David Barbour

(17 July 2023)

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