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UNFATHOMABLE TRUTHS: ‘Agnes of God’ will haunt and impress simultaneously

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Big Dawg Productions have had a hell of a year so far—with “Agnes of God,” they continue their grand-slam season.

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We live in cynical times, where the magic of the world is lost earlier  with each passing generation. That sense of wonder is replaced with a need for answers—though, usually and sadly, gets bogged down with opinions taken as facts. It seems with time and trust, faith is a hard thing to come back by nowadays, wherein actions and outcomes are put in a higher power of some omnipotent being. On the other side of the coin are those who put their faith in science. Through tested and proven facts, answers can be found for everything, and there is no divine reason—only beautiful, calculated chaos of the world and how it turns. It’s this ongoing and sadly never-ending battle that finds itself center stage of Big Dawg Production’s latest hit “Agnes of God” by John Pielmeier, which will be staged for the next two weeks at the Cape Fear Playhouse (pending Hurricane Flo’s effect on our southeastern coast).

Right off the bat, it’s obvious the play is a hard one to watch; the subject matter will unsettle some audience members. Yet, the reward is a magnificent theater experience. “Agnes of God” is not a story of answers; it doesn’t end in a happily wrapped bow but only puts forth my questions upon exit. It leaves the audience pondering miracles, faith, mental illness, innocence, guilt and sometimes the very value of humanity itself. It’s a play that, in lesser hands, would be thrown to the wolves of melodrama; yet, here it’s shaped with pinpoint accuracy by Kat Vernon’s direction. It sent chills up and down my spine, from lights up to lights down.

The plot follows a court-appointed psychiatrist who’s trying to see if a novice nun is capable of standing trial for the murder of her newborn child. The novice nun, the Agnes of whom the title speaks, was found passed out, covered in blood, and with her dead infant in a waste basket. The brunt of the action is an ideological chess match between Mother Superior of the convent and the self-proclaimed atheist, Dr. Livingstone. The two unraveling the mysteries and mind of the damaged Agnes, one trying to save her soul and the other, her mind.

Grace Carlyle (Sister Agnes), Jemila Ericson (Mother Superior Miriam Ruth), and Eleanor Stanford (Dr. Martha Livingstone) form one of the smallest yet best ensembles I’ve seen on stage in 2018. With each member locking arms in solidarity, never fighting for the spotlight or to be the “lead,” they each allowed the others to shine and own the stage. It’s top-notch work, delivered from every point of their triangle.

Though the play is well-balanced between its three roles, it’s Stanford who runs the real marathon within the production. Never leaving the stage, she delivers deep monologues, as if she were recording events for court records. It covers subjects from her patient’s history, the situation Agnes has found herself in, and what has led Livingstone to her own lack of “faith” and trust in the world, only to have her private confessions encroached on by either her sessions with Agnes or confrontations with Mother Superior. Kicking off the play, Stanford sets the pace. Her disgust toward the case and church for what she believes is a cover-up to save face. It’s palpable and rings true of any atheist who is sick of the holy hypocrisy the church flaunts and hides behind. Her cold demeanor gives way to a kind heart that truly wants what’s best for a naïve Agnes. It shows true hope—how in helping her, she could very well help save some lost part of herself.

Though it’s not all gloom and doom, a chronic chain-smoking Dr. Livingstone and the recovering addict Mother Superior—who had given up her own smoking habit years earlier—have a delightful back and forth on whether saints of The Bible would have smoked. If so, what brand would they imbibe?

“St. Ignatius would smoke cigars and then stub them out on the soles of his bare feet,” Mother Superior bellows out in laughter.

It’s a great moment and shows, no matter how far on extremes we find ourselves, similarities relate us to the world, regardless how small or inconsequential they seem.

Dr. Livingstone fights a hell of a tug-a-war with Mother Superior in show, yet it can only be done when matched with a perfect counterbalance. Jemila Ericson is the match. She brings a warm heart to the role but with a stern brow to remind the audience she is hiding an unfathomable truth. As a bride of Christ, her calm demeanor has built up over years of having lived a less-than godly life. She understands with acceptance of past mistakes comes forgives, which ultimately leads to inner peace. Ericson carries it with her every step; though, when she does break, it becomes quite a scary sight to behold.

She lashes out like solar flares erupting from the sun and burns the good doctor with her long overdue, pent-up rage. Never have the words “Goddamn you” sliced through me as it did coming from Ericson—and dressed as a nun nonetheless. She presents fantastic work and no write up can truly capture it. She’s a force to be seen, experienced and felt.

The Lamb of God is at the heart of the play; she is the volatile element that brings the two conflicting points of view together. Grace Carlyle’s performance anchors the play and wows at every turn. She presents Agnes as a true innocent to the world—not accustomed to any aspect of it, and having been kept hidden from it by her monstrous mother (a character who is never seen but whose presents is always felt). Agnes only knows a life of abuse and has a strong streak of Catholic guilt that runs for miles. As a nun, she struggles to find her sense of worth and it is painful to witness.

Carlyle slings herself around the stage like a wild animal when darker repressed parts of her psyche manifest during numerous hypnosis sessions. She seemingly creates an entirely new character in front of the audience’s eyes in a flash. A sweet woman becomes replaced with a foul effigy of her ever-haunting mother. It brought to mind Edward Norton’s performance in “Primal Fear.” “Agnes of God” may be Carlyle’s third play on Wilmington stages, but I see her dominating them in time, as she shows in her role of Agnes.

The play is controlled, as are tech aspects. Some plays need more razzle-dazzle then others; “Agnes of God” is bare except for two simple chairs. It’s rudimentary in design, and at times caused confusion as to where the scenes were taking place. It is the scenic painting that will leave jaws on the floor. Donna Troy has painted an exquisite stained glass window on the stage’s back wall. And, for those who pay attention, the floor of the stage holds droplets of evidence from the horrid night in question.

Big Dawg Productions have had a hell of a year so far—having brought August Wilson’s “Fences” to the Port City back in March and just closed the Steve Martin comedy “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” both of which were fondly reviewed. With “Agnes of God,” they continue their grand-slam season by presenting a play that proves why theatre is done, what theatre can do, and why important theatre companies like this need to exist in our city.

Agnes of God
Sept. 13-16, 20-23, 8 p.m.; Sun. matinees, 3 p.m.
Tickets: $18-$22
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.

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