Review: AGNES OF GOD at Theatre Artists Studio

The production, directed by Judy Rollings, runs through October 22nd at Theatre Artists Studio in Scottsdale, AZ.

By: Oct. 09, 2023
Review: AGNES OF GOD at Theatre Artists Studio
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A single pointed arch flanked by stained glass images embrace the angelic voice of a young nun intoning the Kyrie Eleison (“Lord, have mercy”). A woman, opining on the unfulfilled search for happy endings stands beside two chairs and a table.

This is the stark and contemplative setting (designed by Jeff Blake) for Theatre Artists Studio’s riveting production of John Pielmeier’s 1979 (and still resonant) AGNES OF GOD. 

In a cerebral play that pits faith against reason and that over the years has generated controversy about the representations of the Church and psychiatry, the challenge is to keep the audience invested in the tension and gravity of the exchanges among the characters. To that end, the play’s saving grace, if you will, is that it is, after all, a murder mystery, infused with questions about who done it and why.

Director Judy Rollings has met the challenge by designing a production that is not only well-paced and loaded with gravitas but enhanced by the standout performances of her three-person cast.  

Anne Vogel is the embodiment of a skeptic with a heart. As Dr. Martha Livingstone, the court psychiatrist who has been charged to investigate the infanticide, she insists on following the dictates of reason and defies explanations that cannot be verified by science and psychology. As her opening scene’s soliloquy indicates, her perspective may be compromised by her own demons and her desire “to believe that somewhere, somehow, there is a happy ending for every story.” 

If Vogel’s Livingstone is conflicted, so too is the Mother Superior of the convent. In her role as Mother Miriam Ruth, Shari Watts is an equally commanding presence as the guardian of the faith. She captures the stern and indomitable spirit and fortitude of the true believer that will be recognizable to any alum of a parochial school. Yet, while vigorously protective of the young nun and purporting an explanation for the baby’s birth that neither science or psychology can discern, Mother Miriam Ruth carries a burden that pits faith against truth.

Both Vogel and Watts are sterling in their roles as the self-assured keepers of their disciplines. Their performances are rounded out and complemented by that of Becky Jo Harris in scenes that are poignant and emotionally charged with moral and ethical dilemmas.

Harris delivers a compelling performance as Agnes, the focus of Dr. Livingstone’s and Mother Miriam Ruth’s attention. Agnes claims to have no memory of either the baby’s conception or the birth. Her naivete and her anguish are palpable. At first, she personifies saintliness; her glances heavenward suggest that she is in constant communion and rapture with her savior. Could she have been endowed by the Holy Spirit? To this question, she vehemently resists any effort to discover the truth and yet desperately needs the truth to relieve her of her demons. Agnes is a complex role the nuances of which Harris fulfills with remarkable focus and intensity.

At play's end, we are left with an unresolved mystery ~ a miraculous pregnancy or two compounded sins?

Mother Miriam Ruth observes that the essence of the journey is in the asking, not in answers that may never be known. For the audience, the play is a basis for reflection on faith, science, and the human psyche…and the boundaries between the miraculous and the rational. In this regard, it is worth mentioning that the skepticism of the psychiatrist is matched by the skepticism of the nun. In the words of Mother Miriam Ruth, “The wonder of science is not in the answers it provides but in the questions it uncovers. For every miracle it finally explains, ten thousand more miracles come into being.”

AGNES OF GOD runs through October 22nd at The Studio in Scottsdale, AZ.

Theatre Artists Studio ~ https://www.thestudiophx.org/ ~ 4848 E Cactus Road, Suite 406, Scottsdale, AZ ~ 602-765-0120

Photo credit to Bill Phillips




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