Dr. Martha Livingstone begins “Agnes of God” by telling the audience that a baby has been born in a convent and found dead in a trash can, strangled by its umbilical cord.
The doctor is a court-appointed psychiatrist in charge of uncovering how 21-year-old Sister Agnes came to be pregnant and how or why she would kill the newborn. But it isn’t only Agnes she needs to interrogate; the convent’s Mother Superior appears to have personal reasons for protecting her novice nun that cannot be ignored.
In Lakeside Little Theatre’s second drama and fourth play of the season, Deborah Spitz as the Doctor, Jacinta Stringer as Mother Miriam Ruth and Johanna Labadie as Agnes create an impressive triumvirate seeking to uncover the truth of what happened in Sister Agnes’s room the night of the birth. That process exposes each character’s core, where secrets, doubts and spiritual beliefs have been kept private, until now.
Gloriously written by John Pielmeier, soul-searching is at the heart of “Agnes of God.” Not to be done solely through religion, but how do our beliefs affect our decisions? Are ethics and spirituality intertwined or separate and conflicting? Can a convent protect their own from the evils of reality, and at what cost? Director Paul Kloegman understands the dilemmas the play presents and he directs the cast with a steady hand, revealing each character’s flaws and deceits slowly and deliberately.
Spitz’s Livingstone is a non-believer, determined to get to the bottom of the mystery of the dead baby. She is totally convincing as a recovering Catholic with a deep-rooted dislike of nuns in general and a fierce desire to help Sister Agnes become whole through hypnosis and talk therapy. For her Agnes is laden with baggage.
Mother Superior has a few secrets of her own and Stringer reveals them at times nonchalantly and at others firmly. Another complex character, Stringer ultimately evokes the nun’s conflict of stern religious faith with a human’s morality to do the right thing, despite the problems that might create for the convent where she is in charge. Not to mention her disdain of psychiatry. For her, Agnes is angelic.
To call Agnes troubled would surely be an understatement. Is she a saint or a sinner? Is she completely unhinged or blessed by God? Labadie balances these opposing quandaries with near perfection. Agnes is frightened, childlike and unquestioningly devout. She experiences Stigmata, posing the possibility of a virgin birth as she at first claims. Or was she raped, unwilling to reveal the crime? Labadie’s Agnes is anguished, yet the actress brings fragility to the role that hints at an underpinning of euphoria, despite an excessively abusive upbringing.
This is Labadie’s second performance of the season, having acted in “Time Stands Still,” and she holds her own with two skilled veteran actors. Spitz and Stringer could have had some stronger moments of bristling interaction rather than what seemed somewhat restrained had they been totally unleashed. A little more eye contact and nose-to-nose combat may have been appropriate to unseal the deep dark truths that come tumbling out, not always with the provocation that kind of sparring would usually require. Still, the struggle of faith versus science, miracles versus illusion, the existence of heaven and hell are brought to the table with expert conviction.
There is little on the set to distract from the characters, all of whom keep the story absorbing. The sparse, well-appointed set allows the women to fill the stage with their self-revelations and confessions, which include the crime committed, as well as each woman’s inner life and struggles. All the action takes place under a looming, enormous cross that informs their motives, their questions, their relationships to one another and to God. There may or may not be answers in “Agnes of God,” but the play provokes soul-searching questions through its solid cast of three women, leaving the audience with much to think about.
“Agnes of God” is stage managed by Margo Eberly, with Bruce Linnen assisting as interim stage manager. Geoff and Judy Long co-produced the show. Set design and decoration are by Sheron Brackenbury. The construction crew includes Earl Schenck, David Bryen, Michael Koch, Bryan Selesky, Terry Soden and Rick Bleier. Emily Crocker and Elizabeth Reinheimer are the set painters. Cross construction is by Richard Bansbach. The lighting team is Alan Bowers, Kevin Leitch, Bruce Stanley, Niels Petersen and Garry Peerless. The sound team is Karen Lee and Collette Clavadetscher. Johanna Clark is in charge of wardrobe and special effects are by Nancy Jessop.
“Agnes of God” continues its run at Lakeside Little Theatre through Sunday, January 21.