In rather vehemently discussing the stark differences between the cold, hard facts of science and the reassurance of belief, Mother Miriam exclaims, “I want the opportunity to believe. I want the CHOICE to believe!” It is perhaps in those two sentences that John Pielmeier, author of “Agnes of God,” reveals the central crux of not only the play, but of the fundamental push-and-pull affecting so many people’s lives. What we see, hear, taste, and touch is definable, describable, and largely knowable. It is what we cannot possibly define, describe, or know that pushes us to our limits and leaves us scrambling for answers—any answers that our mere human brains can then comfortably process. There is nothing comfortable about this play, and in The Maryland Theatre Collective’s wonderfully bold and spellbinding production, this inherent discomfort carries the show to some truly brilliant places, in my opinion, as only the best kind of theatre can.
There is nothing comfortable about this play, and in The Maryland Theatre Collective’s wonderfully bold and spellbinding production, this inherent discomfort carries the show to some truly brilliant places, in my opinion, as only the best kind of theatre can.
The stage—at turns occupied by Agnes, a “simple” and misunderstood nun; her overbearing and well-meaning Mother Superior; and the psychiatrist tasked with assessing Agnes’s fitness for trial—is consistently the locus of some deep and emotionally penetrating dissections of feeling, motivation, a few larger-than-life what ifs—and of course, religion. Agnes had given birth and the baby was found strangled by its own umbilical cord not too soon after. The origins of the child’s birth are unknown. The actual motive for murder also unknown. Who committed the heinous crime remains a mystery as well, hence the reason for Agnes’s impending trial.
The way in which Tommy Malek directs this play is riveting in as much as the circularity of it all makes for a dizzying, and still meditatively, contemplative effect. The characters orbit around one another—that is the best word I can think of to describe the movement and overall flow of the piece. They take turns inhabiting each other’s orbits as they try to understand one another. At times, such understanding seems a lost cause. At other times, there is a glimmer of hope that suggests otherwise. At the core of the production—thematically and visually per Malek’s innovative staging choices—is always the idea that the barrier to “knowing” is truth. “Truth,” this play consistently reminds, is often left to the believer or non-believer, as the case may be.
“Agnes of God” touches on some pretty heavy questions regarding the nature of life, death, and the space in between. The three actors inhabiting that “space in between” gel phenomenally well, and yet they also are quite adept at creating these seemingly impenetrable walls of conflict when the scene calls for it. As Agnes, Kaitlin Ruby must somehow find a way to make a “simple” and childlike nun (as she is termed) also seem otherworldly and quasi-prophetic. Beyond the ingenious use of sound effects and Thomas P. Gardner’s clever lighting shifts to achieve this contradiction in character, it is Ruby’s mesmerizing portrayal that allows audiences to witness the painful process of a young nun coming undone one prayer, one doubt, and one memory at a time.
Erin Hanratty plays Dr. Martha Livingstone, the “facts-first” scientist in this group, abruptly throwing ice water on any Catholic claims of a divine hand at work. The ideological and spiritual battles between Livingstone and Mother Miriam make for some of the most engaging moments of the production—you cannot look away. Hanratty’s Livingstone is a perfect blend of cynicism and little girl lost, hardened but deep down, still hopeful. Truly, all of the actors do a tremendous job of breaking their characters down into their most basic contradictions while still showing how these various parts must co-exist in what can be described as a complex kind of inner discord.
It is Pamela Northrup’s portrayal of Mother Miriam that rings most memorable. Northrup absolutely commands the stage with her presence, her timing, and her natural ease with the character. Miriam, truly the “mother” in this ensemble, could’ve easily read as flatly stern but somewhat empathetic had the actor portraying her lacked the emotional vulnerability and instinctive understanding of humankind’s philosophical uncertainty that Northrup’s stage presence seamlessly conveys. This is Northrup’s moment and she radiantly shines.
The set design is minimal with the projections telling the bulk of the story in terms of location—a perfect choice given how Malek seems to want to keep the focus on the dialogue and consequent interactions between the characters at all times. I cannot say enough about this production which is why I strongly suggest you go and see “Agnes of God.” I promise it is a play that will undoubtedly stay with you for quite some time.
Running time: Two hours with one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Discussions of violence, depictions of bleeding.
“Agnes of God” runs through August 13, 2023 presented by the Maryland Theatre Collective at the Chesapeake Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, Maryland, 21225. For more information and to purchase tickets. go online.