Apr 21, 2017
Anyone who doubts the emotional and cathartic power of live theater needs to see Cloverdale Performing Arts Center's production of Agnes of God by John Pielmeier. Directed by Amy Lovato, the play is a fascinating character study of three women as they confront their own demons and desires in search of truth.
Dr. Martha Livingstone (Elizabeth Henry) is the court appointed psychiatrist assigned to look into the case of Sister Agnes (Isabella Peregrina) while Mother Miriam (Athena Gundlach) keeps a watchful eye. Sister Agnes, a young and seemingly innocent novice, gave birth in her room and the baby ends up dead. She doesn't remember the incident and believes the child might have been conceived miraculously.
The Mother Superior and the psychiatrist clash from the start. They are both strong on the outside, but perhaps a little less so, when you look beneath the surface. The big questions are who killed the baby and who could the father possibly be, but much more is revealed than these characters want or expect.
Elizabeth Henry portrays the chain-smoking, slightly neurotic doctor of the mind with just the right blend of authority and vulnerability. All the actors are on stage throughout the play, but she is the narrator and delivers the bulk of the lines. The character's antagonism toward the Catholic church seems real and in many ways justified. It is one of the reasons she depends on science and not faith to define her world.
Mother Miriam, as played by Athena Gundlach, is more than her equal. She is fiercely protective of Agnes and yet behind the veil of authority is an unexpected frailty. I loved all her character reveals that moved the story to new levels.
And then there's Sister Agnes. The beautiful voice of Isabella Peregrina signing her prayers to the Virgin Mary created a lush blanket to wrap this amazing character in. Mother Miriam insists she is “an innocent,” but is that just a nice way of calling her naive? It's hard to believe her capable of murder, but who else could have done it?
Not much needs to be said about sets or costumes, both are necessarily minimal here. The nuns wear habits and the psychiatrist dons a fashionably feminine pant suit. The stage is designed with three areas, one for each character: a large cross for Agnes to pray at, a chair and side table for Mother Miriam and a reclining chair and table representing Dr. Livingstone's office. It's amazing how these few pieces can convey so much with so little.
Agnes of God explores a lot of themes- mothers and babies, God and science, faith and facts. It requires three strong performances or the play goes lop-sided. The actresses on stage in Cloverdale are equally up to their parts. Great writing and great acting. Isn't that what we go to the theater for?