There are two other obvious reasons for bringing back Agnes
after two decades. One is that the debate over faith and spirituality
vs. secularism and rationalism is once again prominent in public
discourse. Just visit any bookstore. The second is what the play offers
a performer. Whatever Agnes’ dramatic merits (Pielmeier is a
one-shot wonder, so far), the play offers three of the juiciest female
roles in American theater of the last generation. It could well be that
the delight Nara must have had in assigning these roles was his prime
The key episode in the drama takes place
before the beginning of the action. A cloistered nun gave birth to a
child in a convent, and its corpse was found in a waste basket. The nun
claims to remember nothing of it, and a court-ordered psychiatrist
comes to the convent to investigate.
News junkies will remember that a
comparable episode actually took place in a convent near Rochester in
the 1970s and information about it can be found online. Agnes
may have been inspired by that incident, but it is by no means a
dramatization of it. In Rochester the nun was a 36-year-old Irish
immigrant who was allowed to travel outside the convent. The court was
able to determine easily that she was impregnated while traveling, and
it found her not guilty by reason of insanity. Not much promise for a
Pielmeier begins instead with an
exposition-filled monologue by the psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingston
(Karis Wiggins). She tells us straight off she thinks God is a moronic
fairy tale and that she bears a special bitterness toward the Catholic
church. A younger sister with a religious vocation had died in the
convent of an unattended appendicitis. Along with this she’s carrying
quite a lot of emotional baggage, which bit by bit we realize is
relevant to the questions she will be asking. She is unmarried and
appears to be alone in the world.
In a drama where there is no single lead
role, Wiggins’ Martha must bear the heaviest load. She has the most
dialogue, appearing in all but a few short scenes. She also must master
the widest array of emotions: questioner, nurturer, accuser and
defender. Wiggins has been on the scene for a few years, but she really
turned heads last year as the confrontational mother in Bryony Lavery’s
Frozen, a professional production at the Redhouse. Much more is
demanded of her here. Along with lightning-quick changes of emotion,
she travels the longest arc. As the only character who breaks the
fourth wall, she has to take the audience with her, sharing her doubts
and her deep changes of heart.
There would be no drama if the Mother
Superior (Kate Huddleston) were not a character of comparable force.
Nara could hardly have cast a better person than Huddleston, who
memorably portrayed Martha Livingston under the late Bob Fitzsimmons’
direction at Salt City Center 22 years ago. She knows what counterpunch
is called for. A sunderer of cliche, Huddleston last wore a wimple on
stage as wisecracking Sister Hubert in Nunsensations: The Las Vegas Review. Her Mother Superior curses casually and growls with conviction, “I am not a virgin!”
In response to Martha’s charges against
her, in which she is culpable, the Mother Superior convinces us she
knows and loves Sister Agnes, a “special” child. Her intellectual
argument that “what we gain in logic we lose in faith” carries weight.
And she is anything but arrogant in reminding the probing psychiatrist,
“You’ll never find all the answers, Dr. Livingston.”
Before an audience dominantly made up of
the hated liberal elitists AM talk radio keeps ranting about, Wiggins’
Livingston starts with an advantage. Huddleston begins with
liabilities, including her lame opening greeting, “Dr. Livingston, I
presume,” the worst first line of dialogue in any good play, ever.
Huddleston makes her case not only with love and rhetoric but with
dozens of endearing expressions of body language, like her roguish
eye-roll around the stage when Martha offers her a cigarette. When
Norman Jewison filmed Agnes of God (1985), it was Anne Bancroft
as the Mother Superior who received the Academy Award nomination, not
Jane Fonda as Martha Livingston.
People who remember the Jewison film version will
be surprised how much more substantial the title role is, virtually a
third lead. Katharine (sometimes Katie) Gibson may be less well-known
than her colleagues but has already been nominated twice for Syracuse
Area Live Theater (SALT) awards. “Mentally challenged,” as she’d be
labeled in politically correct jargon, Agnes embodies a guileless
innocence, like Jodie Foster’s wild child from Nell crossed
with St. Therese of Lisieux. The blood flowing from piercing her palm,
a possible stigmata, is real. She could be touched by the divine, or
she might have the strength of will to bring it upon herself. Or maybe
she brought on hysterical parthenogenesis, as frogs can in nature,
Gibson’s real fireworks come in the
second act, where she comes to dominate the action. “Scene-stealing” is
inadequate to describe what happens; show-stopping comes closer. Three
performers, here led by Gibson, whip up the action. Three characters
might seem manageable for one director, but Nara generously credits
Garrett Heater for his assistance.
Heater also supplies the costumes,
including changes. Gertie Swanson’s set and lighting allow for
evocative mood changes on the bare stage of the Mulroy Civic Center’s
BeVard Studio. Abel Phillips’ raised floor comes with an agreeable
creak, a summoning-up of the old convent.
Nara’s Simply New Theatre swept the SALT Awards last spring, much to the chagrin of his rivals. With Agnes of God he lays down his marker, the non-musical show to try to beat for this year.
This production runs through Sunday, Sept. 28. See Times Table for information.