BWW Reviews: FAC's AGNES OF GOD Captivates, Looks Forward
John Pielmeier's Agnes of God is an exercise in confirmation bias. Both court-appointed psychiatrist Martha Livingstone and convent Mother Miriam Ruth want to believe the deeply spiritual, disturbingly sheltered Agnes is innocent of killing the newborn child she conceived and carried to term, apparently without any of her fellow sisters being the wiser, yet each of them believes this because of what Agnes represents to them. Miriam Ruth thinks Agnes' purity brings the young woman (and by extension, Miriam Ruth herself) closer to God; Dr. Livingstone sees Agnes as a helpless victim of the same kind of rigid doctrine and religious abuse that drove her from Catholicism years ago. Both women believe Agnes confirms their world view, and both are forced to reevaluate their perceptions by the end of the play.
I'm similarly conflicted about the Fine Arts Center's production of Agnes of God, torn between the evidence of my senses and the conviction of my heart. The performance on Thursday evening carried more than the usual share of preview jitters: lines were stumbled over, cues missed, and overall the performance did not attain the level of professionalism that the FAC is capable of providing. Director Scott RC Levy reminded us before the play that they were still in the process of fine-tuning, and it is important to bear that in mind-that is what preview performances are for, after all. Still, to see the three actresses struggling with their dialogue at this late stage is more than a little disconcerting.
But in spite of this I was captivated, inspired both by the performance I saw and by what it had the potential to become. Because when Agnes of God works (and it did, more often than not) it's a thrilling mystery and an engrossing parable about faith, skepticism, and the psychology behind our deeply held beliefs. Encompassed by Christopher L Sheley's beautifully minimalist halo of a set, Levy and his cast take the audience on a journey into the dark uncharted territory of the human soul.
With a cigarette perched in her fingers and a chip on her shoulder for religion, Jane Fromme's Dr. Livingstone is the play's powerful driving force, unbending in her quest for truth even as it leads her into frightening territory. Kathy Paradise's earthy Mother Miriam is an excellent foil for her, with her sensible demeanor and carefully considered faith gradually peeling back to reveal dark secrets. As the two women clash and bond over their mutual concern for Agnes, they reveal more common ground than either of them might be willing to admit. (Oddly enough, in a play filled with such weighty material, the best scene may be where the ladies have a good laugh over the potential smoking habits of the saints.)
And what of the novitiate at the center of the storm? Carmen Vreeman gives Agnes an angelic voice, heart-wrenching fragility, and unexpected fire, making her as captivating to the audience as she is to Dr. Martha and Mother Miriam. Even after the denouement Agnes remains something of an enigma, a girl who experiences stigmata and visions and who somehow pulls the name of Martha's sister out of thin air. It's never clear whether she's touched by an angel or in the head, but Vreeman makes both possibilities seem plausible.
Even as I write this, I have no doubt Levy and his trio of talented ladies are working hard to hammer out the last kinks in their production. With everything they have going for them, there is good reason to believe they will succeed, and Agnes of God can become the great theater it has every right to be. I have faith.
AGNES OF GOD plays at the Fine Arts Center now through April 6th, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00pm. For tickets, call 719-634-5583 or visit csfineartscenter.org.