Sunday, April 18, 2004

Agnes of God (Beck Center)

Thought provoking ‘AGNES OF GOD’ illuminates Beck

Agnes, a 21-year old cloistered nun, gives birth in a convent. The baby is found strangled and disposed of in a wastepaper basket. Agnes remembers nothing about the conception, pregnancy, birth or the murder. The court has assigned Dr. Livingstone, a psychiatrist to investigate. A battle explodes between the protective Mother Superior and Livingstone as they each try to ''save'' the disturbed nun. This is the premise of John Pielmeier’s dramatic mystery, ‘AGNES OF GOD’ being staged at The Beck Center for The Arts.

The play invokes questions of sanity, innocence and spirituality. It asks hard questions about faith and gives no easy answers. The author has stated that he ''offers a story of salvation and hope, [and] through philosophical debate dangles in front of the audience and characters the possibility of miracles.” But, in reality, what does Pielmeir offer the audience? Dissecting the play still leads to head-scratching among actors, directors, theologians, psychologists and theatergoers years after its first production.

From where did the concept for the play emerge? The author states, “Shortly after I moved to New York City in 1977, I saw a headline that said “Nun Kills Baby.” I didn’t buy the paper, and I didn’t read that article, but it gave me the answer to a question that I had been asking for a long time. I had wanted to write a play that dealt with, or that asked questions about spirituality, about sanctity. I wanted to write a play that explored the question: “Would a person who was considered a saint in the 15th century be considered a saint today? Or would he or she be locked up in an institution?”

The play, due to its subject matter, has not been without controversy. As a whole, the Catholic Church never has made any sort of stand against it. However, when the national tour was going through Pennsylvania, the Archbishop of Scranton said, “No, I don’t want this play in the city.” Other Catholics might feel the same way. This is not a settling tale and for some, may put the church and the actions of the seminary in a bad light.

For the play to be successful there must be the melding of a director who understand the intent of the script and a superb cast. The Beck production is fortunate to have Seth Gordon as its conceiver. The production is well paced, is visually effective, and uses sound and lighting well.

The intriguing three-woman cast features Sherri Britton as Mother Miriam, equity member Elizabeth Ann Townsend as Martha Livingstone and Alicia Kahn as Agnes.

Britton is outstanding. She is not only totally believable in her portrayal, but she keys important ideas so they become readily apparent. For example, she states, “What we’ve gained in logic, we’ve lost in faith” with such conviction that the listener’s mind slams on its brakes and ponders the profound concept.

Townsend is a fine actress. Unfortunately, her first act performance was hindered by the necessity to deal with a constantly lit cigarette. The use of the cigarettes caused the timing and emphasis of some of her lines, and her natural body movements, to be compromised. In the second act, when she was sans cigarettes she was brilliant!

Kahn’s performance is moving and entrancing. She didn’t portray Agnes, she was Agnes. Her enactment of the birth and death of her baby was captivating as was her entire ethereal presence.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck’s ‘AGNES OF GOD’ is one of this season’s local theatre scenes’ highlight productions! Applause, applause, applause!