Factory 449’s current production of “Agnes of God,” directed by Rick Hammerly, rises above the weaknesses in John Pielmeier’s well-known but uneven script with three exceptional performances, tight direction, and innovative staging and design.
The play mounted in its first form 40 years ago and with some revisions on Broadway in 1982, deals with a case of infanticide inside a Roman Catholic convent somewhere in exurban America. A young nun became pregnant, gave birth, and was found with the newborn child strangled in a wastebasket, and claims to have no memory of any of it. As the state weighs charges of manslaughter, a psychologist is sent behind the convent’s walls to learn what she can.
…three exceptional performances, tight direction, and innovative staging and design.
Factory 449 company member Felicia Curry, a veteran of plays, musicals, and children’s theatre at multiple regional venues, is the psychologist, Martha Livingstone. Like her Biblical namesake — Pielmeier is not a subtle writer — Martha values work over faith, and first strives to get through her time with the nuns without getting any stink of numinosity on her stylish jacket. All three of the roles in “Agnes of God” are famously challenging, but Curry has possibly the hardest task, as Martha swings between arrogance, compassion, rage, fear, and a Communion host of other emotions.
Martha’s adversary is Mother Miriam Ruth, played by fellow Factory 449 company member Nanna Ingvarsson. Mother Miriam greets Martha with all the warmth of a brick wall, trying to protect young nun Agnes while still using Martha to exonerate her. Ingvarsson introduces Mother Miriam as the epitome of cold religious judgment, only to expertly peel back her outer layers to reveal her as a wise, world-weary woman with much more life experience — and many more doubts — than Martha had first suspected.
Much of the action revolves around the debates between these two proud and formidable women. Martha wields her ever-present cigarette like a secular censer as she and Mother Miriam hash out matters of belief and reason in a sometimes-Faustian battle over a young soul.
That soul belongs to Agnes, played exquisitely by Zoe Walpole. Agnes emerges from the shadows as a delicate, ethereal creature who seems too fragile for this world. Her sessions with Martha reveal her to be a deeply damaged and isolated young woman, a survivor of physical and psychological abuse by a mother who locked her up and kept her from ever developing more than a young child’s mind. Agnes had a baby but has no idea how babies are created.
These are three compelling characters, and though Pielmeier relied somewhat on archetypes — the skeptic, the believer, the innocent — there is much in “Agnes of God” for an actor to embrace, and all three members of the cast do so masterfully. The action plays out on a triangular in-the-round set by Greg Stevens in which each actor is positioned at a separate corner. No actor leaves the stage at any time, and that adds to the claustrophobic, always-being-watched feeling of the convent.
Pielmeier’s script introduces many significant questions, and it is clear he intended to leave them open-ended. But this can frustrate as much as spark introspection. A few hints at the supernatural feel out of place, and the notion that Agnes’s child might actually be the result of an immaculate conception forces the troubling consideration that this sainted young mother might have killed God’s own child.
The theology here is imperfect, and the vagueness of the conclusion irksome. But the strength of three great actors makes this production worthwhile.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes with no intermission.
“Agnes of God” runs through November 24, 2019, at the Anacostia Arts Center, 1231 Good Hope Road SE in Washington. Click here for tickets and information.