Agnes of God
Written by John Pielmeier
Directed by Tal Aviezer
Center Stage Community Playhouse
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
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
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.
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.
Copyright 2008 by Judd Hollander
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