Doubt. Faith. Morality. It’s all put to the test in Spotlighters Theatre’s production of Agnes of God. The classic play written by John Rielmeier is directed at this venue by Allan Herlinger. It is the story of an innocent novice nun who quickly becomes the subject of a scandal when she cannot explain where her baby has come from. Set only in Dr. Martha Livingston’s office, the court psychiatrist assigned to Agnes to determine if she is mentally stable, the play unfolds with only three characters, the nun in question, the doctor and Mother Superior. It is a harrowing account of life and the presence or absence of God therein and is performed with such energy and feeling that you will leave the theatre in tears.
Set Designer Fuzz Roark encapsulates the simplicity of this show with the doctor’s office on stage. The eye-catching piece in Roark’s design is Sister Agnes’ bedroom which is off to the far corner of the stage and although it is never used by the actors, Lighting Designer Matt Klein highlights it in key moments when it is mentioned, allowing the audiences to visualize the events that unfolded there. Klein’s most stunning effect is seen at the closing of the show, a profound lighting choice that I won’t give away but it is very reminiscent to the symbolism seen in The Phantom of the Opera as the light fades away leaving only the mask illuminated. And our nuns are truly outfitted to look like women of the cloth. Costume Designer Laura Nicholson ensures novices are in all white, Mother Superior is in the traditional black and that everyone keeps their hair covered as is tradition with the Catholic appearance. Together this team of designers heightens the dramatic experience of this production with their simple but effective choices.
The three roles of this show are demanding. They are emotionally charged and full of depth, requiring a high level of commitment and expressive display upon the stage. Director Allan Herlinger puts his three actors to the test in these roles and they come through with flying colors, delivering stunning scene after scene of intense physical break downs that draw the lines between faith and reality.
Dr. Martha Livingston (Joan Crooks) is the masterful psychiatrist who struggles with her own convictions of faith and the Catholic practice while trying to help the struggling Agnes (Julie Milillo.) Crooks has the challenging task of long-winded monologues addressed to the audience in a style of reflective prose. She manages to exude a great deal of nostalgic remembrance into these segments and keeps the audience’s focus on her as she paces about her office, elaborating on her experiences. Her interactions with the Mother Superior (Nancy Linden) are nothing short of spitfire and explosive. Their confrontations build and build until they erupt in a slew of vicious vocal attacks as each tries to take victory over the other in their beliefs about what is best for Agnes.
The Mother Superior (Nancy Linden) easily plays both sides of the character; the mild composed woman of the cloth who never ruffles or ripples until she meets Livingston (Crooks.) Linden is calm and collected but has moments of emotional outbursts to rival that of Crooks and in the final scenes when her beliefs collapse in upon themselves, her eyes belay the haunting betrayal of how foolish her belief in innocence truly was. She is a dynamic character who attacks with vim and vigor in her just quest to protect Agnes (Milillo.)
Agnes (Julie Milillo) is the most versatile character on the stage. She is grounded in her character’s naïve and uncertain innocence. She stands hunched to reflect her diminutive place in the world. Her physical commitment to the character is astonishing, quaking and nervously shuffling about the stage, always keeping her eyes on the floor to further enhance her own insecurities. Milillo’s voice trembles when she speaks and her eyes are always wide with frightful questions. But when the outbursts come they are terrifying and haunting.
During the hypnosis scenes with Livingston (Crooks) Milillo recalls all that she cannot while conscious and she bursts into hysterical tantrums, throwing her body against the floor, shouting and crying with painful crescendos; all culminating into emotional collapses that leave her sobbing against the floor. It is a truly stunning and breathtaking transformation; a tasking role to undertake but Milillo masters it with precision and confidence displayed in her character’s disconnected reality.
It is a show not to be missed – the struggles, the anguish, the truth and how it might set your soul to wondering— all found here in Spotlighters’ Agnes of God.
Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes, with one intermission.