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 dont 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 convents Mother Superior, who informs her that suspect Agnes has no memory of the birth or of the death of the child. But the psychiatrist isnt buying it: she intends to interrogate Agnes herself, even to put her under hypnosis, if thats 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 theres 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 babys father, or was there no father? Are those stigmata on her hands real or self-inflicted? And have we become so cynical that we wouldnt know a miracle if it turned up on our doorstep?[dataBox]
Dahlia Legault is Agnes, and shes superb. I was bowled over a few months ago by Legualts performance in My Children! My Africa!, but shes every bit as persuasive in this demanding, much different role. Legaults 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 doesnt 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 thats 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 shes not helped a bit by R. T. Williams unusually blasé set, featuring sheer white curtains and a couple of benches. Its 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. Its a sledgehammer, a wrecking ball. Ive seen better plays, but few as powerful. Kafka would have approved.