Faith, religion, abuse, psychological scars, innocence, guilt, insanity and murder and the effects, implications and meanings of each of those words are powerfully explored in "Agnes of God," a taut three-person drama, which opened at M&D Productions' Your Theatre in North Conway, N.H. Thursday.
"Agnes of God," which is playing Thursday through Saturday for the next three weeks, centers on Agnes (Natasha Repass), a novice nun who is accused of murdering her baby, a baby in which she claims she never saw and has no memory of giving birth to. Dr. Martha Livingstone (Christine Thompson), a court-appointed psychologist, has been sent to the convent to determine if Agnes is sane.
Agnes, who came to the convent with little knowledge of the outside world, is "an innocent" according to the Mother Superior (Jane Duggan). She is blessed with a beautiful singing voice that Mother Superior believes means she is touched by god.
The delicate, childlike Agnes is also deeply disturbed. She sees visions, both transcendent and troubling. Are her hallucinations brought on by years of childhood abuse or is she a modern saint communicating with God? After all, as the Mother Superior notes, the saints today would be dismissed as raving loons.
Mother Superior gets into an ideological battle with Livingstone, who is an atheist with a justifiable hatred toward nuns because of a dark secret from her past. Both want to protect and save Agnes, but have very different views on how to do so. Mother Superior wants to shelter Agnes from the cruelty of the world, whereas Livingstone wants Agnes to face her deep scars from abuse she doesn't understand.
"Agnes of God," written by John Pielmeier, is an excellent actors' showcase, and award-winning director Richard Russo has once again pulled great work out of his cast. It helps that the characters are richly written with multiple dimensions. Even the Mother Superior role is more complex than at first glance.
Thompson, who is on stage the whole time, has the most challenging role. In addition to interacting with Repass and Duggan both individually and together, she delivers monologues directly to the audience. Thompson is required to run the complete emotional gamut from a tough cynical psychiatrist just there to do a job to someone who is completely emotionally invested in Agnes' plight. Along the way Livingstone's beliefs are shaken and her resolve tested.
It is a difficult role that Thompson delves into completely, giving a subtle performance that slowly reveals her character shifts. She only really stumbles in her final monologue, but that is more a limitation of the writing than her. Pielmeier's script throughout is full of intelligent, probing, affecting and occasionally funny dialogue, but that concluding monologue feels forced as it tries to neatly bring plot threads and themes together.
Duggan perfectly captures the mannerisms, body language and speech patterns of a Mother Superior, but this is a character that isn't written broadly or as a stern cliche. She is warm and caring toward Agnes and also shows moments of subversive wit in her conversations with Livingstone. Duggan explores these shadings in a way that feels natural and unaffected.
Repass has the showiest role as she is required to go to dark places and perform some intense scenes. It is to Repass' credit that even when she must say and do outrageous things that the performance stays grounded in a place that feels real. Repass captures the sweet innocence of Agnes, but also reveals the hurt and confusion the sweetness masks. Agnes is a tragic character that Repass makes heartbreakingly believable.
The set by Deborah Jasien is simple, but also beautiful. The lighting design by Ken Martin works with the set to create interesting visuals that are quite effective.
This is a show that stirs discussion and asks the audience to confront heavy emotions and ideas. It is a challenging, but worthy of evening of theater in which you can't help but admire the craft of everyone involved.
For more information or tickets call the box office at 662-7591.