Ecstasy turns to anger and doubt in ‘The Saviour’ at Off-Broadway’s Irish Rep

Now making its world stage premiere Off-Broadway in a limited summer engagement at Irish Repertory Theatre (following the work’s online streaming with the Cork Midsummer Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe during the pandemic in 2021), award-winning Irish playwright Deirdre Kinahan’s The Saviour, presented by Landmark Productions (one of Ireland’s leading theatrical producers), explores the impact of loneliness, religion, and abuse on a woman, her family, and her devotion, as her mood shifts from euphoria to hostility to uncertainty with a visit from her adult son, who shares some explosive information about the stranger-turned-lover she met at church.

Marie Mullen. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Set in 2020, in the small home of Máire on the outskirts of Carlow, Ireland, on the morning of her 67th birthday, the two-hander begins as an extended rapid-fire monologue from her bed on the morning after. While smoking a cigarette, she talks glowingly to her Jesus (listening, she believes, from a mountaintop in Tibet) about her sexual delights with Martin, the new man in her life, who is in the kitchen making her coffee and breakfast. Since we don’t see him, we wonder if her euphoria is all imagined, if he really is there, or if he even exists.

She not only goes into giddy detail about their intimate night together, as she moves around the room, effusively talking, laughing, smiling, and brushing her hair, she also reveals the traumas of her childhood, when, upon the death of her mother, her father placed her in a convent, where she was subjected to six years of harsh labor and cruelty at the now infamous church-run Magdalene Laundry of Stanhope Street, from which she was rescued by the man who would be her husband. But she found no pleasure with him, just more hard work as a wife and mother, in contrast with Martin, with whom she feels more alive than she ever has, is finding sex more enjoyable than mechanical for the first time in her life, and is grateful to Jesus for bringing him to her.

Marie Mullen and Jamie O’Neill. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

All that changes when her son Mel, who doesn’t see her often, brings a birthday gift as an excuse to deliver some shocking news about Martin’s past and his likely current intentions. As their uncomfortable conversation in the kitchen (which Martin left upon Mel’s arrival, as he does every time he sees him) becomes increasingly combative and insulting, we learn more about his life, the reasons for the strained relationship with his mother, and the effect her stated belief in repentance and forgiveness of Martin (though not acceptance of her son) could have on her family and her connection with Jesus and the Church.

Under the tight and incisive direction of Louise Lowe, Tony-winning Irish actress Marie Mullen delivers a tour-de-force performance as Máire, flawlessly embodying the Irish “gift of gab,” recounting her story with humor and raw emotion, and expressively capturing her trauma and loneliness, joy and rage, in a gripping characterization that elicits our empathy and ensures our understanding of the struggles she’s endured and the need for her long-time refuge in Jesus. She is joined by Jamie O’Neill as Mel, who matches her emotional commitment to the role with his own believable frustration, resentment, explosive wrath, and glimmers of the underlying love and hope that leaves her (and the audience) questioning the issues of responsibility, faith, and gullibility.

Marie Mullen. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

A tight turntable set by Ciarán Bagnall rotates efficiently from bedroom, where a crucifix prominently hangs on the wall, to kitchen, where the gift of a doll recalls Máire’s distressing childhood, while highlighting the separation between mother and son. Telling costumes by Joan O’Clery – he is in everyday clothing, she remains in her nightgown – bespeak her attachment to the night she spent with Martin, and dramatic lighting by Bagnall and sound by Aoife Kavanagh, which includes voiceovers (by Belle Boss, Alex Finucane, and Jonathan White) of some of the unseen characters and grows louder and more disturbing, heighten the changing tone of the narrative.

Irish Rep’s powerful debut production of The Saviour is funny until it turns very serious, with outstanding performances and direction that relay real human emotions and psychology, and insights into how people deal with trauma, for which there is no easy resolution.

Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes, without intermission.

The Saviour plays through Sunday, August 13, 2023, at Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street, NYC. For tickets (priced at $50-90, plus fees), call (212) 727-2737, go online. Masks are optional.


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