Agnes of God Opens at The Venue
If you ask me to describe in one word what The Venue at 35th’s current production of Agnes of God is like, that word would be “intense.”
The John Pielmeier play, billed as “a supernatural thriller,” had its Broadway debut in 1982, and there are some dated passages in its compelling dramatic script. But they hardly distract from the journey of the three female characters, whose initial cool composure at their first meeting quickly escalates into heated strife, as each struggles in increasing desperation to protect herself from revealing the soul-shattering truths about herself which each conceals without full self-awareness.
In fact, if there is anything redeeming about their journey, it is that self-awareness, however bitterly contested, is ultimately cleansing, preferable to preserving an illusory ego identity to cover a frightened, isolated, deeply wounded self held together by threads and patches. Over the course of the two-and-a half-hour drama, as if drawn into a three-way mirror, each sees her own reflection in the images of the others and is forced to endure the relentless peeling away of the defenses which protect a number of closely guarded personal secrets.
Especially highlighted—giving the play, if anything, more relevance than ever—is the haunting, underlying spiritual ambiguity of modern life, where our longing to believe in magic and miracle or, indeed, a loving God is undermined by the materialism of physical science and technology.
Kudos, then, to playwright Pielmeier, but Agnes of God could hardly fly without three actors willing and able to ride together on the emotional roller coaster the script demands. Fortunately, Phil Odango, who directs The Venue production, has assembled those actors in this, the first in a new series of “compelling plays celebrating the human experience,” which he plans to bring to the café’s tiny stage in the months ahead.
The story, apparently based on an actual case which unfolded in upstate New York in the 1970s, focuses on Sister Agnes, a 21-year-old novice in a Roman Catholic convent who has been indicted for killing her newborn infant daughter, found in a waste basket in Agnes’ room, strangled with her umbilical cord. The court has appointed a psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone, to evaluate whether Agnes might be considered insane. Serving as Agnes’ advocate, before the court and with Dr. Livingstone, is Mother Superior Miriam Ruth, who is most anxious to control the evaluation so that Agnes may be exonerated of any crime and returned to her supervision in the convent.
At the outset, Dr. Livingstone seems to be a detached, competent professional. Mother Miriam Ruth comes across as a control-oriented, somewhat condescending example of moral certitude who is only concerned with what is best for Agnes. Agnes herself projects a beatific innocence, denying any knowledge of a child as she takes refuge in a cloying love for God.
All three, of course, are posing yet don’t seem to know it, which makes their disintegration so compelling. Mother Miriam Ruth and Dr. Livingstone soon enter into an obsessive battle to define Agnes according to their own needs—the atheistic woman of science against the pious woman of faith—while, for her part, Agnes clings to her innocence as if her very life depends upon it, which, in many ways, it does.
M. Elizabeth Dickerson turns in quite a strong performance as Dr. Livingstone, the psychiatrist who descends from cool detachment to complete emotional involvement in her personal need to prove herself right by dragging out of Agnes the truth of her child’s conception, birth, and death.
Diane Sokolowich as Sister Agnes is equally up to her task, presenting an Agnes whose emotional states reel unpredictably, yet credibly, from benign sweetness to hysterical outbursts of rage and hate.
Jeanne Elizabeth Pivirotto holds her Mother Miriam Ruth together well, with many impressive moments. But I would have liked to have seen a more controlled modulation of her moods, rather than her reliance on in-your-face outbursts at every challenge from Dickerson’s Dr. Livingstone.
That said, and without giving away too much for those unfamiliar with the plot, these three women play out this powerful drama with great integrity and truth, each round of interaction with each other digging ever-deeper in an outright war between rationality and faith with no real answers ever provided. In the end, all we really know is that, for better and for worse, each of the women is unmasked—to herself and to each other—and there are no winners. One wonders if healing may follow after such emotional carnage, but all the playwright gives us about that is a hint.
Director Odango makes the most of The Venue’s small stage so the actors never seem to crowd each other. Additional lighting equipment, which arrived the morning of the show’s opening, are a welcome addition to the theater’s hardware. Costumes and makeup by Gabby Nelson are convincing and, in the case of the nuns, appropriately sexless, as opposed to the doctor’s more worldly look.
For those who crave emotional and psychological complexity in the theater they attend, this Agnes of God is well worth seeing. But, though it is scheduled for nine shows, the run is compact—from opening night, Wednesday, Jan. 18, through Saturday, Jan. 22 and from Tuesday, Jan. 25 through Saturday, Jan. 29. All shows are at 8 p.m. Ticket prices for this one have been raised from the usual Venue fare—$20 general admission, $15 for seniors, students, and military. But the product is high quality.
The Venue at 35th is located at 631 35th St. in Norfolk. For information and reservations, call 469-0337.