By Jim Reiter
Blurring the lines between fact and fiction is a scenario that feels quite familiar in present-day. One is reminded of that dispute while watching the science vs. religion debate at the heart of Agnes of God, the current offering at Colonial Players in downtown Annapolis.
Perhaps a more accurate term would be science vs. faith. Because John Pielmeier’s intense drama, which hit Broadway in 1982 and was adapted into a 1985 movie, squarely pits fact against belief, yet both sides preserve hope.
Sister Agnes, a young novice nun with a horrific past, proclaims she had an immaculate conception when her newborn baby is discovered dead in a trash can in her room at the convent. She claims the birth was a miracle, but doesn’t know how the baby died. A court appoints psychoanalyst Martha Livingstone, a lapsed Catholic, to determine Agnes’s sanity for trial.
Livingstone locks horns with Miriam, Agnes’s Mother Superior, who fiercely defends her charge’s innocence, saying Agnes grew up too shielded to even know what pregnancy is or how it happens. Miriam challenges Livingstone’s assertions that only science and fact matter.
The few flaws in Pielmeier’s script (would Miriam really believe that the court might return Agnes to the convent after such a crime?) fade fast as a trio of fine performances brings the story to life.
Laura Gayvert as Livingstone and Mary MacLeod as Mother Miriam bring their characters’ science vs. faith tussles to life. Both Gayvert and MacLeod have long acting resumes and that experience is on display here.
Both firmly establish their character’s positions, allowing the verbal fisticuffs to fly believably back and forth. Yet each allows us to see the touch of doubt that also lies behind their character’s arguments, showing us why they may not be as entrenched in their positions as they would have each other believe. Could it be they have more in common than they’d like to believe?
As the timid and naive Agnes, newcomer Ashleigh Bayer in her first stage performance is at once measured yet moving, subtle yet animated. Her face, eyes closed and angelic as she sings (quite beautifully) parts of the Catholic Mass in Latin, becomes a font of love as she insists it was God’s baby. When Livingstone hypnotizes Agnes, her horrible secrets tumble out in hysteria as if happening right in front of us. Agnes’s physical and emotional pain are so palpable it seems we in the audience aren’t just watching but also feeling. And it hurts.
Director Jeff Sprague’s staging appropriately keeps the action front and center within Colonial’s in-the-round setting, and his direction ensures that the pace remains crisp. And while one aspect of Terry Averill’s set design may seem curious at first—it evokes rigging on a ship—just look up, and the thorny symbolism will be bared. Brilliant. As is Eric Hufford’s lighting and Robin Schwartz’s sound design, both of which effectively set the proper moods for this evocative production.
Like Pielmeier’s script, the production has its minor flaws: Agnes’s bouts of hypnotic hysteria at times bulldoze through lines we need to hear; and while Livingstone’s level-headed demeanor is usually appropriate, some of her lines are clearly meant to be delivered with a fierceness that at least matches Miriam’s. And, just to be ultra picky, at the very close of the show, after a deeply emotional scene is followed by Gayvert’s beautifully rendered final words to the audience, the lights go out quickly and almost as quickly come back up again, with music, for the cast’s bows. Why not let the dark, and the quiet, linger for just a few seconds? We, the audience, have just experienced something powerful and visceral. Give us a moment to let what we’ve seen and felt, sink in.
Again, like the script, these tiny flaws are trampled by the overall excellence of the production. Colonial Players’ Agnes of God doesn’t offer answers to the science or faith debate, but thanks to three riveting performances, the questions are more than enough.
About two hours including one intermission; ThFSa 8pm, SaSu 2pm, through April 2. Tickets $23-$18, general admission only; masks must be worn. Call 410-268-7373 or visit thecolonialplayers.org.