Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Thoughtful Agnes of God
A new born baby has been found dead, umbilical cord wrapped about its neck, in a wastebasket in the room of Agnes, a young nun in a contemplative order. Agnes, a simple, naïve individual, who was found lying unconscious suffering from severe blood loss at the time of this grim discovery, lacks memory of the conception of the baby and of the events surrounding its birth and death. Preliminary to her trial for the murder of the child, the Court has ordered that Agnes have a psychiatric evaluation.
The play's ultimate revelations will unlock some of the answers concerning the baby's birth and death that the psychiatrist is seeking. However, the play mostly centers on the conflict between Dr. Mary Livingstone (the female court appointed psychiatrist) and Mother Miriam Ruth (the convent's Mother Superior). The former seeks to uncover the "scientific" truth, whereas the latter believes there is a metaphysical explanation for the baby's conception.
As melodrama, the play examines the psyches of three Catholic women and the personal histories which are motivating them. Thus, this play is filled with revelations concerning these deeply troubled women. Mother Miriam and Dr. Livingstone prove to be not nearly as objective as they initially represent themselves. On an intellectual level, author John Pielmeier raises troubling questions concerning the survival of faith in the face of modern science.
The melodramatic aspects of Agnes fail to resonate in this production. It seems to me that with richer and better nuanced performances, and more evocative staging, a moving and more powerful effect could be achieved. However, the issues raised by Pielmeier are at least as relevant today as they were when the play was written.
Although this is certainly not a Catholic bashing play, it does not come down on the side of the sustainability of faith. However, it fairly presents conflicting points of view and suggests that the loss of faith leaves mankind profoundly impoverished. Mother Miriam expresses the view that, when science answers questions, it inevitably leads us to new questions. Dr. Livingstone argues that science is ridding the world of superstitious ignorance.
There is a fair amount of specificity regarding Catholic beliefs and institutions which will provide resonance for viewers with a Catholic background (this includes a humorous exchange as to what brand of cigarettes various saintly persons likely would have smoked). Although it is conceivable that a few might take offense at the work at hand, most people of faith will be stimulated by and appreciative of the passion and intelligence that Pielmeier brings to the table.
The estimable Suzzanne Douglas is miscast here. A powerhouse musical performer, she fails to smoothly integrate the various aspects of Dr. Livingstone. She jump shifts from cool professionalism to neurotic involvement. Before one impassioned speech, she moves to her left with a couple of little hops and a clenching of her hand which had me thinking that she might burst into "Rose's Turn" from Gypsy.
Although her interpretation is perfectly valid in the context of the script, Maria Dizzia presents us with a drab and uninteresting Agnes. The audience has to accept on faith that she projects any of the shining spirituality which could account for Mother Miriam's view of her.
Laurie Kennedy provides the most nuanced performance as Mother Miriam. The secular side of the late to the cloth Mother Superior is never far from the surface of her determined piousness.
In its original Broadway production, Agnes of God starred Elizabeth Ashley (Dr. Livingstone), Geraldine Page (Mother Miriam) and Amanda Plummer (Agnes). This stellar trio probably had much to do with Agnes' initial success.
Director Ted Sod is not at the top of his form here. Although the play seems to occur in the psychiatrist's office, this is not readily apparent because the entrances and exits are made from two small stairways that lead through arched doors appearing to lead into the convent. While this is thematically understandable, it is confusing dramatically. Neither the looming convent wall, nor music nor lighting, are employed to transport us back to the convent when the truth of the events which set the play in motion are revealed. Neither does the staging deal successfully with awkward moments in the script, such as when Dr. Livingstone allows Mother Miriam, who has previously disrupted a similar session, to remain present when she hypnotizes Agnes.
Despite production flaws, Agnes of God should prove to be an involving and stimulating experience to those with a special affinity for its subject matter.
Agnes of God continues through February 1, 2004 at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, NJ 08901. Box Office: 732-246-7717; online www.georgestplayhouse.org
Agnes of God by John Pielmeier; directed by Ted Sod. Cast: Suzzanne Douglas (Dr. Martha Livingstone); Laurie Kennedy (Mother Miriam Ruth); Maria Dizzia (Agnes).