Review: In ‘The Saviour,’ Past Trauma Is Very Much Present

Back stories can be dangerous things. A character besotted with them — especially reductive trauma-filled ones — colludes in her own miniaturization.

That’s the case with Máire Sullivan, the central character of Deirdre Kinahan’s “The Saviour,” a two-character drama that is receiving its world stage premiere at Irish Repertory Theater. Propped up in bed on her 67th birthday, a languorous Máire (the lauded Marie Mullen, who originated the role in an online production of the play in 2021) enjoys a postcoital smoke as she waits for her lover to bring her a cup of coffee.

Ciarán Bagnall’s set, with its chalky walls and dusty windows, suggests a room that hasn’t been aired out in years. It’s a fitting milieu for a woman who cultivates mental cobwebs. Even the “volcanic” sex she’s just had sends her mind hurtling to the past; addressing her confidences to Jesus, Máire, a devout Catholic, describes how sex was previously “foisted on me when I didn’t want it or offered for a bit of peace.”

From there, clues pointing to a traumatic episode pile up. After her mother died when she was a young girl, Máire was sent to a Magdalene laundry, a “reformatory for whores and hussies,” as she describes it. These laundries, operated by Catholic religious orders and propped up with state funding, incarcerated thousands of Irish girls and women as late as 1996. Máire recounts the monotony of the work, the suffocating silence imposed on the “forgotten girls,” and the unmourned death of a friend who dropped “dead in the steam.” Such reminiscences, though chilling, seem both overly contrived and overly familiar when spatchcocked together, departing little from abused-children narratives handed down by Dickens and Charlotte Brontë.

Even working with a script that leans too much on exposition, the galvanic Mullen shows impressive range, channeling Molly Bloom in a fist-pumping soliloquy about having sex as a sexagenarian one minute, chiding herself for “acting ridiculous” the next. When her son Mel (a guarded Jamie O’Neill) shows up to deliver some disturbing news about her lover, she unleashes a biblical wave of fury on him.

Alas, for both these characters, the past is like a heavy fog that never lifts. (Mel hints darkly that Máire was an emotionally absent mother, frequently subject to dark moods, and even hit one of her children.) The gift that Mel brings for Máire’s birthday — a doll wearing a yellow dress with pink roses — is a throwback to a toy that the nuns at the Stanhope Street laundry snatched from her as a young girl. But even a seemingly heartfelt gift meant to restore something of the life that was taken from Máire is ultimately used as a weapon against Mel.

As the play ends, Máire and her son, whose homosexuality she can’t bring herself to reconcile with her faith, are at an impasse. Under Louise Lowe’s direction, mother and son stand on opposite sides of a wall facing the audience, underscoring their estrangement, as Mel offers a moving reflection of a rare moment in his childhood when “Jesus left us a bit of room.” For all of Máire’s religious fervor, the continual resurfacing of trauma is the bigger issue. It exerts the gravitational pull of a black hole that sucks everything in and gives nothing back.

The Saviour

Through Aug. 13 at Irish Rep, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 10 minutes.

This review is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in the work of cultural critics from historically underrepresented backgrounds.


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