Marie Mullen Blesses ‘The Saviour’ With A Must-See Performance at the Irish Rep

The Tony winning actress is making just her sixth appearance in New York in the stage premiere of this two-person drama.

Marie Mullen in Irish Rep’s production of The Saviour. Carol Rosegg

The summer of ’23 may go down as the one when Manhattanites had the opportunity to discover the brilliance of two world-class actresses who almost never play New York. England’s Juliet Stevenson is holding court currently at the Park Avenue Armory (through Aug. 19) in her second play here and first in 20 years, The Doctor, a drama about antisemitism and medical ethics. Ireland’s Marie Mullen is finishing “the stage world premiere” of The Saviour, now at Irish Rep (through Aug. 13), and then heads home to present the play at the Dublin Theater Festival in Dun Laoghaire.

The Saviour, a gripping two-hander by Deirdre Kinahan, is Mullen’s sixth sighting locally. Two of those six were in The Beauty Queen of Leenane. In 1996, when she went to Broadway with it, she waltzed off with the Best Actress Tony, playing Maureen, a spinster whose love life is upended by a selfish, interfering mother named Mag. The play ends darkly with Mag toppling out of her wheelchair, dead from Maureen’s poker blows. In 2016, Mullen revisited the play from another perspective—that of the murdered mom—in a revival done at BAM and in L.A. 

“I was glad I had the chance to play Mag, but Maureen was really my soul,” the actress tells Observer. “I didn’t realize when I came to play Mag how much of Maureen was still in me.” She calls The Beauty Queen of Leenane “an almost perfect play,” adding that playwright Martin McDonagh completed it in just two weeks. “He gave me the manuscript when we finished Beauty Queen—his hand-written manuscript! There are hardly any revisions in it. It came out perfectly.” Twenty-five years after The Beauty Queen of Leenane provided a Broadway debut for Mullen and McDonagh she met him and returned the prized manuscript to the hands that had created it. 

“Maureen was like a roller-coaster ride when you speak his lines,” Mullen says. “They’re full of energy and madness. He takes the audience on a path they don’t expect to go on. His language is so forceful you can’t go back. You say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go there,’ but you have to because he’s making you go there, and he’s making you wait until the end to see what happens here. He’s making you do that. It’s his words. They just fall out of your mouth and cascade over the stage.”

The character that Kinahan has conjured up for her in The Saviour is, likewise, off the rails. She’s a religiously warped widow named Máire Sullivan who communicates constantly with Jesus Christ (whom, she imagines, lives on a mountain top in Tibet). When the play begins, we find Máire pretty close to heaven as it is, basking in post-coital bliss, having just experienced the best sex of her life. (“Gymnastic is what it was,” Máire says.) Sitting up in bed, she draws deeply on a cigarette and tells Jesus all about it, hoping the savior won’t be jealous because he is, after all, her “Number One” and she did meet her obliging stranger, Martin, in church (which is, clearly, Jesus’ doing). 

The first third of this 70 minute drama is all Mullen, recounting the miseries that befell Máire under Ireland’s tyrannical theocracy. When Máire’s mother died, her father tossed her into one of the notorious Magdalene laundries where she put in six years of slave labor under the auspices of the Catholic church. A loveless marriage lasting until death did them part, meant more work—plus children who’ve subsequently neglected her. All she has left is her Jesus, who’s not a great conversationalist.

Marie Mullen and Jamie O’Neill in The Saviour. Carol Rosegg

The other character in this play is her late-arriving gay son, Mel (Jamie O’Neill), who comes with alarming news about Martin’s true nature. Predictably perhaps, Maire responds by flinging homophobic epithets at Mel for robbing her of the only real happiness to enter her home.

Mullen has a very personal excuse to what Maire is going through: “My own mother was 95 when she died. A devoted Catholic all her life, she went to mass, said the rosary and had a great, strong faith, but later in life she became disillusioned because of the pedophilia of some priests. She never spoke about it, but she lost a lot of interest in some of the rituals of the Catholic Church, even though she still prayed and still had her rosary beads with her. And I know she believed her Jesus was with her all her life. She was just disillusioned by those priests she always thought were closer to God. From her point of view—and from my point of view—it was the awful things that the Catholic Church did to our people in the ‘50s and the ‘60s—you know, terrifying  them, telling them that God was a punishing God, and all that sort of thing.

“I wanted to do this play to show people that. I think a lot of people still remember that sort of thing. I feel it from the audience. It’s familiar, that kind of coercion that the Catholic Church was guilty of—and especially Maire’s attitude toward her gay son. It’s very upsetting, but it’s not far-fetched at all. In this day and age, Ireland is wonderful, but there are still pockets of belief.”

Aside from the fact there’s much to act here, the character of Maire was Mullen’s key point of attraction. “I understand her vulnerability,” she says. “And it’s a good thing for women to say we can enjoy a sexual experience while we’re in our 70s. Something about that attracted me. 

“Maire makes me sad, and, when I leave her in the dressing room at night, I have to leave her there. I’m  so upset for her,  for losing her mother that way, then her son, for all the horrors she went through in her life—the institution she grew up in—all those awful things that happened to her. I feel terrible sadness for that woman, but I try to have respect for her when I perform her. I do it for all the Maires in Ireland. There’s so many people like her, in different ways, in the country. All they need is a bit of understanding and a bit of generosity. They are courageous women because they work hard and bring up their families. There’s lots of love in their souls.”

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Marie Mullen Blesses ‘The Saviour’ With A Must-See Performance at the Irish Rep