Last fall Big Dawg Productions opened John Pielmeier’s “Agnes of God” the week before Hurricane Florence. The act of God prematurely ended the show run, which received praise-worthy reviews. However, Big Dawg has elected to re-stage it at Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street as part of their new season.
There are certain pieces of dramatic literature in the American canon revered by performers for the power and magnitude of the writing. These scripts demand complete performances. They tend to be difficult to sell at the box office because, if done well, it affects the audience emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, and leaves a physical impression. The audience ceases to be separate and are by virtue of witness, an essential element to production. Marsha Norman’s “‘night Mother” is one example, Pielmeier’s “Agnes of God” is another.
Dr. Martha Livingstone (Eleanor Stafford), a practicing psychiatrist and lapsed Catholic, is assigned to evaluate a young novice nun, Agnes (Grace Carlyle Berry), for mental competency. Agnes is accused of murdering her newborn. The Mother Superior of the convent (Jamila Ericson) stands in loco parentis and tries to direct the course of Livingstone’s investigation. What unfolds is an exploration of the deepest mysteries of human perception and explanation.
Is Agnes a modern day saint? Does she have divine visitations? Or is she an abused and damaged victim, handed from one abuser to another? Did Agnes know she was pregnant? Did she kill the child? Did someone else? How did Agnes become pregnant? Was it consensual? Does Agnes have adult knowledge of her own body to make or understand decisions regarding her own safety? Is she a danger to herself or others? If she is not responsible, who is? Where is the limit for our responsibility to others entrusted in our care?
Stafford’s Dr. Livingstone must be the vehicle for the audience to enter this world. It is through her hope, frustration, fear, curiosity and personal journey into the mind of Agnes the audience can engage with these characters as real people. Mother Superior would stand between Agnes and the world (audience). Is she protecting Agnes or herself? Is she keeping Agnes safe or keeping her caged up? It is a fine distinction. It is a question asked, maybe even abused, by people in positions of power—from the power of a parent over a child to the power of building walls in the name of keeping people out (or is it keeping people in?).
Ericson’s Mother Superior is a formidable foe for Livingstone; they are well-matched opponents in this fencing match. As Stafford slowly uncovers the layers of deception that have been built in front of her, she unmasks a pattern of abuse used as a justification and as a weapon in itself. What makes Ericson’s performance so subtle and powerful is, though she is fighting to protect herself and her convent (which she is responsible for), genuinely, she believes herself to be protecting Agnes—to be fighting for Agnes, not hurting her. As Mother Superior she has absolute authority in her convent, as we see in flashbacks with Agnes (“Say it Agnes. Believe it.”) But, here, in Livingstone’s office, she is, for the first time in many years, a supplicant. It is not a role she wears lightly or comfortably.
Ericson dressed for battle is formidable, but the determination of Stafford, the genuine humanity and deep-seated desire for resolution are not weapons she is prepared to contend with. The enigma that is Agnes haunts and obsesses them both. It would be easy to turn Agnes into a baby-talk weakling, but that choice would make the whole show collapse.
Berry’s Agnes is arresting. Who is this girl that has no education, no interaction outside of prescribed confines, and yet has created this perfect armor to protect herself as best she can from those who control her life? She is an institutionalized survivor, but what lurks beneath the surface is a person simultaneously desperate and terrified to ask for help. She’s desperate to find a protector, but who knows, intrinsically knows, everyone who claims to love and protect her will only hurt her further.
Berry makes Agnes’ visitations, hauntings or hallucinations—whatever you wanna call them—believable and distinct. Like her counterparts on stage, she is a stunning actress who makes specific choices for each role she becomes. Recognizing her from project to project can at times be difficult, as so complete is her transformation. Perhaps the best compliment I can give Berry—and the entire cast—is I physically felt fear in my throat and chest. I did not sleep the night after the show; the performances haunted me.
Pielmeier’s script began to be workshopped in 1979 and came to Broadway in 1982. The inspiration was a seed planted from a real-life case of a nun who hid a pregnancy and delivered a child she subsequently killed in her convent. The script has elements that harken to both Stephen King’s 1974 book “Carrie” and the 1973 book “Sybil” (for which Pielmeier would write the 2007 TV adaptation). But each fragment is only that: fragments drawn upon to create something more lasting, specific and haunting.
“Agnes of God” remains a painfully relevant show. The New York Times headlines the morning after this run opened included: “Pope Gathers 190 Church Leaders for a Historic Summit on Child Sexual Abuse” and, from Liesl Schwabe’s column, “Everything I Know About Feminism I Learned From Nuns.” But “Agnes of God” is about much more than just the Catholic church. Or power. Or divinity. It is stripped bare—an exploration of the inner reaches of our humanity.
Pielmeier makes it clear “Agnes” doesn’t need an elaborate set—only a table, two chairs and an ashtray to be staged because the focus is on the performances and what the script forces the performers to explore within themselves. Director Katherine Vernon has directed an intense and powerful evening with a powerhouse cast and a set of two chairs, a bar stool and a pack of cigarettes. She clearly approached the material without any fear—nor hid from it behind elaborate trappings. Instead she delivers as it was intended: with courage. At every turn, every choice reflects a deft hand to bring alive a delicate and powerful journey. There is not one wasted moment on stage—nothing is superfluous.
The cast is completely, totally committed and we, the audience are, too. It is rare and powerful to experience work like “Agnes of God,” but when we do, we know, however terrifying, we are actually in the presence of a divine moment of inspiration—something greater than one, than the cast or the audience. But, together, it creates an ephemeral experience whose impact will linger.