Theater Review: Agnes of God is an elemental success

Theism v. Atheism, Miracles v. Cynicism, parents who, contrary to all love and logic, brutalize their children, and about innocence, real innocence, such as we all had once, and have mostly lost. If you don’t mind having your emotions kicked around the block by two acts of theater, this is a production to experience. What it lacks in subtlety it more than makes up for in muscle.

A young nun, we learn in the first few minutes of the drama, has been found in her convent with a dead newborn baby stuffed into her wastepaper basket. A psychiatrist is called in to determine whether the nun is mentally fit to stand trial for infanticide. She meets the convent’s Mother Superior, who informs her that suspect Agnes has no memory of the birth or of the death of the child. But the psychiatrist isn’t buying it: she intends to interrogate Agnes herself, even to put her under hypnosis, if that’s what it takes to get to the truth. There are problems: for one thing, the psychiatrist despises the Catholic Church, which she blames for the death of her own sister years before. As for the Mother Superior, she knows more than she admits, and even wants to believe that the conception was immaculate, an act of God. Then there’s Agnes herself, a naïve, unworldly waif who was seldom let out of her home during her childhood, and who has memories so painful as to make her distrust any motherly woman, religious or secular. Is she protecting the baby’s father, or was there no father? Are those stigmata on her hands real or self-inflicted? And have we become so cynical that we wouldn’t know a miracle if it turned up on our doorstep?[dataBox]

Dahlia Legault is Agnes, and she’s superb. I was bowled over a few months ago by Legualt’s performance in My Children! My Africa!, but she’s every bit as persuasive in this demanding, much different role. Legault’s Agnes seems at first possessed of a beatific joy, as if she hears lovely harmonies to which the rest of us are deaf. Exuding innocence and goodwill, she doesn’t prepare us for the extremes of emotion she eventually displays, and to watch her relive her labor may be as difficult for us as it apparently is for her. As her friend and protector the Mother Superior, Hersha Parady is wonderfully complex, suggesting a strength and solidity that’s miles from stereotype -- and then surprising us with shrewdness and guilt we never imagined. Only the usually impressive Eileen Koteles falls short in this performance. Instead of building her anger as she becomes familiar with the Mother Superior, she starts out in full battle mode and thus has nothing to develop. But if Koteles’ combativeness is too pronounced in the first act, it makes sense in the second, and brings us some thrilling confrontations. Director Karla Hartley directs to draw blood, but she’s not helped a bit by R. T. Williams’ unusually blasé set, featuring sheer white curtains and a couple of benches. It’s unusual to see so poorly designed a play at Stageworks.

Still, this Agnes of God works: the frozen sea within us may be miles thick, but this is one drama that threatens to smash right through it. It’s a sledgehammer, a wrecking ball. I’ve seen better plays, but few as powerful. Kafka would have approved.

“I think,” said Franz Kafka in a letter of 1904, “we ought to read only books that bite and sting us ...What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us.”

I remembered Kafka’s quote after I saw Agnes of God in the somewhat crude but still shattering production that Stageworks is currently offering at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts. John Pielmeier’s play, which I first witnessed in a workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut in 1979, may have received more restrained productions during its thirty years of life, but the Stageworks version has an elemental violence that strikes right at that frozen sea we all depend upon for our normal functioning.

Watching the amazing Dahlia Legault (pictured, photo courtesy Brian Becker Photography) relive the agonizing birth of her impossible baby, watching Hersha Parady and Eileen Koteles swing away at each other like two battered prizefighters who want the opponent destroyed, we’re made spectators not only of a suspenseful, well-crafted play, but also of fundamental antagonisms that run deep beneath our culture. This is a play about primary things:

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