Have faith


Agnes of God


Written by John Pielmeier

Directed by Tal Aviezer

Center Stage Community Playhouse

2474 Westchester Avenue (2 blocks south of East Tremont Avenue), Bronx


Closed February 10, 2008

Review by Judd Hollander


Science, religion, logic and faith collide head-on in the Center Stage Community Playhouse's excellent production of John Pielmeier's drama Agnes of God.


Set in 1979 America, the facts are these: one night the body of a newborn infant is discovered in a wastebasket, inside a cloistered convent, with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. A subsequent search reveals Sister Agnes (Keri Seymour), a young postulate, lying on the bed in her room covered with blood. Now under arrest, but released on bail and staying at the convent until the trial, the case has been assigned to Dr. Martha Livingstone (Ruth Chiamulera), a psychiatrist who must determine if Sister Agnes is fit to stand trial. The third character in the play is Mother Miriam Ruth (Pauline Walsh) who is less interested in the truth than the welfare of Sister Agnes; a gentle soul who the Mother believes has been touched by (and given a gift) from God. However, as Dr. Livingstone's sessions with Sister Agnes progress, more questions than answers are revealed as the question of why this tragedy happened also becomes one of just exactly what happened, as things which once seemed certain no longer appear so, and possibilities previously dismissed as flights of fancy (and religious hokum) suddenly become more plausible.


Despite the title, the crux of the play centers on the meetings/confrontations between Martha and Mother Miriam, two women with diametrically opposed points of view, each of whom is carrying painful memories and secrets inside. Martha has had bitter personal experiences with the Catholic Church (first from her time in Catholic School as a child and then with the death of a family member via a Mother Superior's poor judgment). As a result, she has become an avowed atheist (and can hardly be considered objective in the Sister Agnes matter). As for Mother Miriam, while she is firm in her faith, a path she acknowledges can be harsh and lonely, she is definitely not as open as she would like to appear. A keeper of numerous confidences, her main objective is to protect Sister George (with whom she has a closer connection than anyone first realizes) as well as the convent,  from the prying eyes of the outside world.


The verbal jousting matches between Martha and Mother Miriam are fascinating to watch, as the characters they portray slowly turn from wary adversaries to enemy combatants to uneasy allies and back again. It's a credit to the actresses (and to director Tal Aviezer) that neither comes off as in any way stereotypical. Rather, each woman is a fully formed human being, complete with her own secrets, foibles, hidden pain and emotional baggage.


Walsh comes across as the more powerful of the two, first presenting Mother Miriam as someone who seems sincere, smiling and eager to help. Yet she wastes no time in putting Martha on notice that in order for the psychiatrist to even try to get inside Sister Agnes' head, she'll have to go through her first, attempting to act as a sort of filter between doctor and patient. Mother Miriam also has an interesting technique of deflecting a question with a question; a practice that drives Martha to distraction and keeps the audience watching intently as they try to unravel the mystery the story has become. 


Chiamulera has the more difficult role, with her character rather constricted both in her thinking and due to her professional capacity, which requires her to be more inflexible in her actions - note her character's last name. Still she pulls it off quite well, showing a woman with a spine of steel and a determination to uncover answers no matter the cost – to anyone. In a nice touch by the playwright, the character also serves as the narrator for the piece, giving several expository speeches to the audience, supplying information to her background (as well as the story), which work better than trying to shoehorn these plot points in elsewhere.


In Sister Agnes, the playwright has crafted possibly one of the most interesting and difficult characters to portray in the history of theater: an almost total innocent with a naivety which projects (and contains) a combination of rapturous joy and deeply hidden pain. In the wrong hands the character could appear comic where she is meant to inspire curiosity and a parody where she is meant to evoke serenity. Seymour thankfully is perfect in the title role, bringing forth the right combination of faith, fear, self-loathing and childlike wonder to make the character not only believable, but also causing one to question if she has indeed been touched by the Almighty. (Her singing voice and comments to Dr. Livingstone seems to indicate that it's possible.)  She also inspires the most sympathy of any of the three characters in the play. Which is somewhat surprising, considering the charges against her.


Aviezer's direction is quite strong, keeping the action moving nicely and staging the various interplays between the characters like a combination chess/boxing match with both Mother Miriam and Martha each trying for the upper hand while Sister Agnes, the ultimate prize, hangs in the balance. The set by Jason Bolen (basically a few props on a bare stage, which is all the story needs) is quite good; as are the excellent costumes by Peter Mussared. The lighting (also by Bolen) works well.


While there is a finality in the outcome, many questions remain; as well as perhaps a germ of something more in at least one of the characters. There's also the work's underlying theme of faith and how it can protect, heal, inspire and in some cases, destroy.  A sobering point, one of many raised in this quite sterling production.


Box Score:


Writing: 2

Directing: 2

Acting: 2

Sets: 2

Costumes: 2

Lighting/Sound: 2


Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander


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