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The Saviour

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - July 13, 2023

Jamie O'Neill and Marie Mullen
Photo by Carol Rosegg
It can't be easy to cram two separate plays into one 70-minute running time, but that appears to be what playwright Deirdre Kinahan has done with The Saviour, a compact drama now on Irish Rep's mainstage (an earlier version streamed during peak pandemic). One is a rather unfocused stream-of-consciousness monologue coming from a not-quite-there matriarch in rural Ireland, and one is a blistering two-character family drama. Fortunately, both boast an important asset: Marie Mullen.

You may remember Mullen from years back in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh's early excursion into Hibernian madness and violence, wherein her yearning, devious Maureen garnered her a well-deserved Tony. In more recent years she essayed Maureen's equally horrendous mother, Mag. In The Saviour, as the sixty-something Máire Sullivan, she might be a cousin to Mag.

We encounter Máire on the morning of her birthday, smoking in bed (Ciaran Bagnall's set is modest, with an odd detail: Why is the window papered over?), engaged in an extended dialogue with an imaginary Jesus, while in the throes of post-coital rapture. My, she does wander all over the place. She wonders of her savior, "Did you bolt when we got to the dirty bit?" She speculates on how sinful she's being and recalls how awful the nuns were during her six browbeaten years as a ward of one of the Magdalene Laundries. She reminisces about her not-that-happy 42-year marriage to Colm Sullivan and the three not-that-precious children it produced. And she revels in the potent lust she's feeling for Martin, her new beau who's downstairs making coffee. We're aware throughout that something seems to be off. Interspersed with Máire's deep devotion and rote religiosity are some very unholy thoughts about her surroundings and the people in her life, Martin excepted.

Sorry, but the self-righteous ramblings of a slightly deranged, more than slightly dissatisfied, nearly immobile Irish housewife don't really do it for me, though Mullen delivers them with an off-kilter timing and cool confidence that help us understand Máire, and maybe even care for her a little. But things heat up considerably with the arrival of Mel (Jamie O'Neill), one of her sons, bearing a badly chosen birthday gift and some unwelcome news.

Mother and son manage mumblings of affection but are clearly uneasy around one another, and a major confrontation is only a breath away. Which arrives soon enough with Mel's revelation about Martin, throwing Máire's universe into chaos and triggering ugly mutual recriminations. Mel, meaning well, is nevertheless hurling accusations, and Máire is reciprocating with lavish self-pity, vile moralizing wrapped up in Catholic judgmentalism, and a quick abandonment of all the Jesus-loves-you proselytizing she's been doing–because it's no longer convenient, and she's clinging to her narrow worldview with the tenacity of a MAGA freak. What a fraught relationship they have. Mel: "You were never here." Máire: "I was always here." Mel: "But not in your head."

You'll be reminded of Sean O'Casey, surely, with the brogued familial battles and the vain groping for inner peace through Jesus, or one's twisted idea of Jesus. Kinahan's dialogue can tend toward the obvious–Máire begging of her savior, "Are you listening? Where? Where are you?"–and we don't get a very strong feel for Carlow, the surrounding community. The time is 2020, and it must be very early 2020, for there's not even a whisper about COVID. Aoife Kavanagh's sound design includes the voices of Máire's grandchildren and Martin, and alas, while they may be imparting important information, they're not very audible.

But Mullen has a worthy sparring partner in O'Neill, whose Mel carries frustrations anyone with a difficult parent can identify with, and Louise Lowe directs with a keen ear for the jagged rhythms that can surface among squabbling relatives, or in the musings of a conflicted woman whose mind, as Mel correctly surmises, is not always there. The Saviour could do with more nuance of character and detail of setting, and perhaps less of Máire's aimless musings. But if we're going to have aimless musings, there's no one we'd rather have delivering them than Marie Mullen.

The Saviour
Through August 13, 2023
Irish Repertory Theatre
Francis J. Greenburger Mainstage, 132 West 22nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: