Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, September 2004
Twenty-two years ago, when John Pielmeier’s three-woman play Agnes of God opened on Broadway, it was a sensation. It had a modest six month run, not bad for a new, non-musical production, and garnered two Tony nominations for Geraldine Page, who played Mother Superior Miriam Ruth and Amanda Plummer, daughter of actors Tammy Grimes and Christopher Plummer, who played Agnes. Plummer won, and it was this role that made her a star.
The play examines questions of motherhood and womanhood, faith and science. It tantalizes with the promise of a religious miracle, something that we all desperately long to believe in even if we profess no particular personal faith.
Dr. Martha Louise Livingston (Constance Lopez) is a lapsed Catholic whose sister, Marie, died as a novice in a convent when the Mother Superior refused to seek medical attention for her appendicitis. She is a psychiatrist by profession, a chain smoker, and past menopause. She has never married or had children, despite the mention of an early pregnancy resulting from a brief engagement to a Frenchman.
Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Louise Pillai), on the other hand, is a widow with two grown daughters who entered the convent late in life. She has a special spiritual, and, it turns out, biological connection with the young Sister Agnes (Molly Sewalk), who came to the convent at the age of 17 after an isolated childhood with her alcoholic mother. At the start of the play, Dr. Livingston is called upon to perform a psychological evaluation of Agnes, now 21, who is accused of murdering her newborn infant in her room at the convent.
Agnes claims to have visions and to sing in the voice of one of her visionary visitors. She suffers from visible stigmata – apparently spontaneous bloody wounds on her hands that resemble those caused by crucifixion. She is anorexic, and she claims complete ignorance about the biological processes of conception and birth. Mother Superior believes that Agnes has been touched by God, and that it is possible that her child was divinely created. Dr. Livingston’s probings reveal a childhood of physical, sexual and mental abuse, consistent with the hallucinations, self-mutilation, and memory blackouts that Agnes suffers.
Of course, Dr. Livingston also hates nuns and the Catholic Church, which she blames for her sister’s death. The connection revealed between Mother Superior and Agnes casts many shadows on that relationship too. Mother Superior is a biological mother whose children have shunned her religious vocation. Dr. Livingston believes she can never become a mother, although her menses miraculously resume during her treatment of Agnes. Agnes was tormented by her own mother and denies that she herself bore a child. God is always spoken of as masculine, but there is no doubt of that he is a parental figure to all three women in different ways.
One glaring fault in Pielmeier’s script is the absence of the Virgin Mary. Agnes’ entire crisis is encapsulated in the Catholic ideal that women should be both virgins and mothers – a biological impossibility – and that to be merely one or the other is always falling short of perfection. Real Catholic women would have spoken of and prayed to the Blessed Virgin repeatedly during an ordeal of this nature. It is a grave oversight that she is so conspicuously absent from their conversation.
The three actresses in this production, mounted by The Two of Us Productions at the Valatie Community Theatre and Berkshire Artisans in Pittsfield, MA, are competent and often moving, but they never really connect to one another. Suddenly Dr. Livingston loves Agnes. Why? Suddenly Mother Superior hates Dr. Livingston. Why? Part of this may stem from the sterile and unimaginative direction by Stephen Sanborn, which has the performers standing in specific places on the set to indicate whether their speech is internal or external.
Of course, I can only speak of the show as I saw it in the rough and unfinished Valatie Community Theatre during the heavy rains from Hurricane Ivan. The show may change dramatically in another setting. The heavy rain on the roof made the actors, particularly Pillai, hard to hear. There is no electricity in the building, so light was supplied by running in hundreds of yards of extension cords. Minimal lighting may have severely limited where Sanborn could have his performers stand and still be seen. There are no wings or backstage area at Valatie, so all three performers were visible most of the time, except when they retired behind a small screen for a sip of water or to make a minor costume change. The Valatie Community Theatre is a large space and the performance I saw was fairly sparsely attended. It is hard to get that up-close-and-personal rapport between performers and audience when such vast, empty distances separate them. Had I seen this show in the intimate confines of the Main Street Stage or even a cozier house like the Ghent Playhouse, I might have felt very differently about it.
This is an imperfect production, but certainly not a bad one. Lopez and Pillai are experienced and appealing performers who each did her best with the material. Lopez had moments of real warmth and believability as Dr. Livingston. Pillai never really found her center as Mother Superior Miriam Ruth. This is a rich and demanding role, and Pillai fell just short of fully inhabiting the character.
Sewalk is a talented young woman, just embarking on her junior year of high school. Portraying Agnes’ innocence was no problem for her, in fact her own natural youth and inexperience worked against her at several points. There is no way that a girl that young can fully understand and reenact the trauma of childbirth, although Sewalk under Sanborn’s direction did give it a good shot. And it is difficult for a young person who, I pray, has never known the horrors of abuse to bring that fully to life. Sewalk gives a strong portrayal of a wounded soul, but never convinced me that there was anything truly divine about Agnes. I understood her mortal suffering, but not her religious ectasy.
The production values are minimal. The show does not demand flashy lighting and costumes and sets, and this production is especially spare as it is designed to tour to different spaces. On that count it is a good choice of material. But it also means that everything rests on the actors and their ability to deliver the story with an immediacy and intensity that really draws the audience in. There is potential here, and I hope that with a few more performances under their belt and a move to a more intimate venue, the show will gel into something really special.
Agnes of God, presented by The Two of Us Productions, runs September 17-19 at the Valatie Community Theatre on Rt. 203 in Valatie, NY; and September 24-26 at Berkshire Artisans on Fenn Street in Pittsfield, MA. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with one intermission and is not suitable for children under 14. Call the box office at 518-329-6263 or 413-499-2071 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2004