Hrosvitha of Gandersheim is a deep cut in the history of women in theater: a tenth-century canoness who wrote religious comedies (for an expansive definition of comedy, anyway) modeled after the Roman playwright Terence. She wrote six plays that we know of (though we know virtually nothing of how, or even if, they were performed), all of them on religious themes of redemption and repentance, and of the virtue of women. Her play Abraham, or the Fall and Redemption of Mary serves as the basis for Emma Horwitz’s Mary Gets Hers, which closely follows Hrosvitha’s plot while trying to flip its focus. Where the theme of Abraham is the salvation of the young Mary from a life of sin, it’s really the story of Abraham, Mary’s uncle and a hermit monk, who rescues her first from a potentially godless life as a plague orphan and then–years later, after she runs away from his “protection”/captivity–as a prostitute. Which is where Horwitz comes in.
The point of Mary Gets Hers is to put Mary back into the story as an active force. Where Hrosvitha’s Mary is more plot engine than person, Horwitz’s Mary is a fierce little girl (Haley Wong does good work portraying the childishness of Mary’s perspective), possessed of not just an endangered soul but a yearning spirit. Hrosvitha’s Mary needs to be rescued at every turn, too naive and foolish to even recognize Abraham when he comes for her the second time; Horwitz’s Mary is two steps ahead of Abraham at that point, clocking him immediately and trying to resist returning to the monastery. Hrosvitha’s Mary is drawn into a life of sin from which she must repent; Horwitz’s Mary uses the series of dire circumstances of her childhood to build up a life that’s self-sufficient in both the material and spiritual realms.
This may be an implausible journey and certainly one that glosses over substantive tragedy and abuse in Mary’s life: She is not only orphaned but left entirely alone in the world by a series of plagues, then “rescued”/kidnapped by a hermit (who is, unknown to her, her uncle). She’s kept for years in a secret seclusion within his monk’s cell with nothing to do but pray, her presence known only to Abraham (Susannah Perkins) and one other monk, Abraham’s friend Ephraim (Octavia Chavez-Richmond). When Mary finally escapes, she’s taken in by an innkeeper (Claire Siebers) who appoints himself a pimp, prostituting her to a series of his “friends” (all played by Siebers in increasingly absurd and eccentric caricatures). Yet when Abraham comes to rescue Mary, she doesn’t want to forfeit that measure of independence and go back with him. And when finally granted a “room of her own” that does not also involve sex slavery, she carves for herself a fulfilling and self-directed life, mostly, it seems, through replacing the love of her lost parents with a grounded self-love.
Where Horwitz gives Mary more agency, she gives Abraham and Ephraim more doubts: they’re still men of faith above all else, to be sure, but Ephraim is looking into a void for God and questioning whether he’ll look back, while Abraham relishes his relationships with people outside his hermit life: a soldier friend (Kai Heath) in particular, but also the almost-buried connection to his dead brother that brings him to Mary in the first place.
Horwitz’s transformation is clearest when you compare Mary Gets Hers directly to Abraham; if you compare scene by scene, you see the little ways Horwitz gives Mary choices and judgment, from tracking her time in captivity and seeking an escape to claiming space in her room at the inn and later at the monastery to recognizing Abraham when he comes to find her and resisting returning to the monastery (until she realizes both that the innkeeper has been profiteering off her body all this time and that she and Abraham are genuinely connected by bonds of family). But in the theater, without the one-to-one analysis, that empowerment can feel a little facile, a little pop culture-y, especially because while Horwitz’s text acknowledges the brutal and wrenching deaths of Mary’s parents, it only glances at what’s actually happening with those “lovers” of a young teenager. Horwitz finds humor in Mary’s modern consciousness of self and her way of looking at herself and narrating her own story, but Mary’s thoughts and feelings remain in a constrained register; she misses the love of her parents, and she likes decorating and running, and we don’t get much more. The play glides over not only how Mary comes by this self-possession, but the forty-seven years of her adult life during which she finds a path to live as an independent woman, described only in a coda. Wong does good work as the young Mary, using the inherent self-absorption of a child as a source of strength, but she doesn’t quite shift into a different register for the end.
And while we see brief glimpses, in that coda, of the relationship that adult Mary builds with Abraham and Ephraim, the play’s truly human bonds belong to the men. Director Josiah Davis’s staging is presentational and patterned, but his work with the actors fills the piece’s undercurrents with tenderness: Between Perkins’s Abraham, earnestly ineloquent and desperate to do good, and Chavez-Richmond’s Ephraim, lonely in his soul. Between Abraham and Kai Heath’s Soldier, battle-scarred but overjoyed at spending time with his old friend, even if that friend is about to run off with his chainmail (said chainmail is a standout piece in Camilla Dely’s costume design). Heath and Perkins, in particular, practically glow, in the shyest possible way, when their eyes meet.
The characters are men, but, as if it were being cast in the convent where Abraham would have been written, Horwitz’s script specifies casting with women, trans, gender-divergent, and non-binary actors–and also a cast that is not 100 percent white: “The Middle Ages were not a monolith,” says the casting note. The combined effect, along with the deliberate silliness of the tonsure wigs and the various hairpieces of the inn’s customers, adds a layer of modernity to the presentational quality, as does Mary’s breaking of the fourth wall to act as narrator. And so, too, does the language: Mary Gets Hers falls into the increasingly familiar category of feminist retellings of history that use modern language, diction, and sensibilities: the Apple TV show Dickinson, Gab Reisman’s Spindle Shuttle Needle, Talene Monahon’s The Good John Proctor. At its best, this technique gives us a more immediate emotional access to these people and situations of the past, but also ironizes the distance between us and them. But in Mary Gets Hers, because Mary remains largely opaque, the language can start to feel as pop-culture slick as its view of female empowerment.