Agnes of God by John Pielmeier opened at The Little Theatre of Norfolk last weekend. As a former theatre major, I was aware of the play, by reputation, being heavy with Catholicism and a dead baby, and that the title was an obvious pun on Agnus Dei, which is Latin for Lamb of God. In fact, my memory deceived me: I thought it was by a different playwright whose last play I saw was titled “Buried Child”. I was more familiar with “Agnes is Odd” a play-within-a-play in a Christopher Durang parody including most of the same plot points, but in a funny way. By this I mean to say that going in I knew little about the play except that it was not going to be a comedy.
In fact, there are moments of comic relief, more than I was expecting, which keep it light enough to sit through two hours of a play about a dead baby. The plot revolves around three main characters who are trying to discover the elusive truth around the infanticide and the corresponding guilt or innocence or sanity of the defendant. Alternating between real-time, flash-back, and directly addressing the audience through the fourth wall, the story unfolds, at times evoking more questions than answers. Is it better to be right or to be good? Is the reputation of the institution more important than the safety of one individual? Can you be an educated scientist and still believe in miracles? Can we trust people in positions of power?
There are quite a few parallels to Alias Grace, the historical fiction novel by Margaret Atwood I read recently which is now also a Netflix miniseries. Many of the same questions were raised: What happened surrounding the crime? Is the defendant innocent or guilty? Is the defendant sane? Can unconventional methods such as hypnotism be used to reveal the past? Can we really trust these methods?
My overall impression of Agnes of God is that it was engaging, thought provoking, and very well done. In her Director’s Note in the playbill, director Kathy Strouse described the creative process for Agnes being different than her usual process due the fact that the play was a mid-season replacement. The result was a faster-paced and inherently more collaborative research process which included the cast (normally she researches for months before casting). On stage, this translated to a very strong and trusting ensemble, to Strouse’s credit, and the cast was clearly very supportive of each other in order to do the best job possible to tell the story.
Martha Baker, as psychiatrist and lapsed Catholic Dr. Martha Livingstone, deftly balanced the scientist’s struggle between wanting to find the court-mandated truth of what happened and the doctor’s desire to diagnose and heal the patient. Dr. Livingstone is deeply shaped by grief and loss from her past and by society’s judgement of her choice to have a career rather than a family. Baker did an excellent job incorporating the character’s past in the choices she makes in the play. Portraying Mother Miriam Ruth, Ann Heywood capably navigated the complexity of the nun’s character and her story arc. The novice nun Sister Agnes was acted by Willow Harris, making her LTN debut. A student at Salem High School, she capably portrayed the simple purity on the surface and various layers of depth within Agnes with a finesse beyond her years, and her beautiful singing was particularly notable.
Throughout the course of the play, the power struggle between Dr. Livingstone and Mother Miriam twists and turns as much as the plot. The cast handled and displayed these emotional roller-coasters with capable empathy, strength, and compassion. All three women also did a fantastic job telling an emotionally-charged story through a couple of technical glitches, and though they occasionally tripped and stepped on lines, they stayed completely engaged in the story, the audience hanging on the next development.
With such a meaty script, the design team did well to stay out of its way. Katelyn Jackson’s costume design was simple but effective. The unit set, designed by BA Ciccolella, evoked both the psychiatrist’s office and the convent, with three stained glass windows of Catholic imagery. Alex Mason designed the lights, using different color temperatures to effectively delineate between asides and flashbacks. In the performance I attended, there were a few lighting difficulties: one time the lights went out in the middle of a scene and took a few minutes to catch up to the action in the play, and there were a few times that some of the lights turned off and on several times during a scene. To the cast’s credit, they stayed entirely focused during these moments, and continued to tell the story with professionalism as the difficulties were resolved. Sound, designed by John Roberts, was effectively minimal: subtle reinforcement of the cast and music before and after the play and during intermission.
Though it premiered in 1979, this play is still quite relevant these 40 years later, particularly in light of the #MeToo movement and the claims of assault that continue to come out against the Catholic Church. It can be incredibly difficult to talk about these uncomfortable topics, and at times, it is uncomfortable to watch this play. However, only by continuing to have these courageous conversations will we, as a society, be able to bring these issues into the light, hold predators accountable, and remove their power.
Agnes of God runs through March 31 at the Little Theatre of Norfolk. You can purchase tickets here.