But, John Pielmeier’s play, set in 1979 and originally produced in 1982, takes that incident, presumably based on a real-life case, and weaves his story around and through it. The central subject is the relationships between and among women: mothers and daughters, most prominently, but also sisters, both religious and familial; and collegial ties, personal and professional. Another layer explores questions of faith and doubt. Of course, there are no easy answers, and Mother Miriam Ruth claims there should not be, that in fact, science does not answer questions but poses them. This attitude is anathema to the logical mind of fallen-away Catholic, Martha Livingstone, a woman who still believes in the “alternate reel,” the happy ending that can be found if one tries hard enough, but God won’t be involved.
Mother makes it clear from the outset that she does not trust the doctor or the process of psychiatry. She believes that Sr. Agnes is one of God’s chosen; if not a saint, as close as we can come in these times when souls are bound to the Divine by threads, not the ropes Mother says held them close in the early days of the Church. She firmly believes in the sanctity of the early Church fathers and mothers, but she’s not sure that such people exist in modern society. Agnes, and her clear, pure singing voice reflect, to Mother, the purity of her soul, and provide hope that there just may still be holiness in human form.
Dr. Livingstone, by contrast, believes all this religious stuff is just hooey. She first began to doubt her faith when she was only six years old. A friend was killed by a truck while walking to school, and the teaching nun said it was because the girl hadn’t said her morning prayers. The lessons little Martha took from this were that first, nuns are stupid and cruel, and second, “God” is random. An incident some years later drove her from the Church entirely and caused an irreparable schism between her and her own mother.
Mother Miriam Ruth is not exactly what she seems on the surface either. She is a woman in late middle age, and she surprises the doctor with the story of her own past. She also is prone to withholding information which is revealed throughout the drama. A struggle begins between the two women for the body and soul of Agnes. Dr. Livingstone believes the girl did not kill her child; Mother Miriam doesn’t seem to find that issue as troublesome as whether Agnes’s spiritual innocence can survive this ordeal. Agnes becomes a totem for both women. For the doctor, she is a surrogate daughter whom Martha genuinely loves; “I love you as much as God loves you,” she tells Agnes, a statement not without irony. Here, transference has gone awry and the doctor has developed a personal attachment to the patient. For Mother, the girl remains a symbol of the faith that is not as profound as the older woman attests.
Secrets and lies are never far beneath the surface of this complex drama, a showcase for actors. It is rare to find a play with three such meaty parts for women, and these three throw themselves into the characters with their whole hearts. Sellers is fully convincing as Agnes, the lamb of God who has been sacrificed either for Him or in spite of Him. Her backstory is horrific, and the Convent has become her literal sanctuary after the death of her monster-mother. The other two women’s agendas intersect and collide with each other so that sometimes they are allies, sharing smoking stories and joking about the saints, and other times bitter adversaries. Mother accuses Dr. Livingstone of “hating nuns” and the Church itself. With that, the doctor would agree, but in order to hate God, you have to believe. And how does one do that?
Kelley is convincing as the psychiatrist who is more troubled than some of her own patients. She holds herself so straight that she’s nearly leaning over backwards. She is the narrator of the play which is related by her after the fact, so all the events we see are flashbacks. Kelley shows us the changes that take place in Martha who has become absolutely convinced that God does not exist. In the Bible, incidentally, Martha is the sister who tended to the house rather than listening to Jesus, according to Luke. I’ve never seen her give a stronger performance than here, as the woman who “ran away from God as fast as her brain could carry her” but still starts to bless herself before going into battle for her patient’s mind and almost unconsciously brings fist to heart three times during a “mea culpa” scene late in the play.
The only false note here is played by Kennedy. She is one of St. Louis’s finest actresses. From Shakespeare to August Wilson, she can do it all. But she simply isn’t right for this part and the work is inconsistent. She doesn’t seem fully comfortable with the language or the character she plays. That said, she has a breakdown scene that rattles the rafters, so much can be forgiven, and her colloquial approach to the character does add extra humor, as well.
I wasn’t sure Agnes of God would hold up 30 years after its debut, but it does. While it’s odd to see cloistered nuns, or any nun in a habit for that matter, that fact is less important than what we’ve learned about the Catholic Church over those years. Trusting the priest who ministers to the convent, the unseen Father Marshall, as strongly as the sisters do seems disingenuous today, but a scandal covered up by a holy order? It could have been on the news last week.
John Contini’s direction is generally excellent. The way he moves his players around is like a dance. They keep a wary distance, they circle each other, they get close enough to hug at times, but pull away when it’s too uncomfortable. At one point the Mother Superior and the court-appointed psychiatrist end up sitting together on Mother’s desk having a big of a giggle. There is comedy here, and Contini has mined every bit of it. I do have a couple of quibbles. One is that the actors (Sellers and Kennedy) tend to give a speech then leave the scene hurriedly, no matter what the subject. Sometimes it seems rather stagey in that way. The other involves pacing: the build could be more gradual. There are wildly emotional arias for all three characters and I had a sense that they could have come up more slowly so that there would be less risk of emotionally exhausting the audience before the “money” scene.
The set, also by Contini, is simple, but effective. A stained glass window overlooks a space that serves variously as Mother’s office and the doctor’s. John Burkley’s lights illuminate the window when the action is in the convent and dims them to indicate the doctor’s office. Another “window” is created by lighting for her office, a leafy tree. Overall, the lights are dramatic and evocative. Costumes are appropriate with Kennedy in the black habit, and Agnes, in white, of course, to indicate her purity and kinship to the lamb. Kelley is all-business in a tailored pants suit in Act I; in II she’s removed the jacket, sort of the shrink version of taking off the gloves when she determines to get to the bottom of this situation. However, her fiery red hair is an odd choice—it’s almost orange. She does talk about the agony of freckles when she was a child—her teacher called her “Polka-Dotted Livingstone”—perhaps the hair is to make us see her as that child? I only mention it because I found it distracting.
There are far more strengths than weaknesses in this “Agnes,” however. While rivers of blood run through it—besides the stigmata that presumably signifies Agnes’ holiness, there are repeated uses of menstrual blood and the outpouring of the blood at the moment of birth as tropes interrogated in several contexts, ultimately emphasizing the eternal feminine principle. Here, the interaction among three strong and interesting women brings the primacy of the female, the other creator and bearer of life, to the fore. It is unfortunately rare to witness such a play, and it deserves a larger audience than it had at the performance I attended. Please note that it only runs one more weekend.
Agnes of God runs through May 8 at Avalon Theatre Company in the Crestwood ArtSpace. You may call 314-351-6482 or visit www.avalontheatre.org. Andrea Braun also reviews for KDHX 88.1 FM Radio.
BY: ANDREA BRAUN – THEATRE CORRESPONDENT