by Walter Ruff
John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God is a sensitive disturbing and electrifying play being revived in a new production at The DC Arts Center by Omaemoda Productions over twenty years after its original Broadway run. A new born baby has been found dead, umbilical cord wrapped about its neck, in a trash can in the room of a young nun. The nun, a simple, childlike young woman, was found, lying unconscious suffering from massive blood loss, does not remember conceiving the baby or its birth and subsequent death. Prior to her trial for murder, the court has ordered that Agnes have a psychiatric evaluation to determine her fitness to stand trial. So sets the stage in Adams Morgan for a flawed but enjoyable production that is truly a sum of its parts. The play examines the character of three Catholic women, Dr. Livingston, Mother Miriam and Agnes and the emotional baggage they carry. Filled with disclosures revealing how really pained these women truly are we find neither Mother Miriam nor Dr. Livingstone are as impartial or unprejudiced as they lead you to believe. Both have agendas driven by their past and neither is willing to back down.
Many of the answers concerning the baby’s birth and death are answered by the show’s end but the play mostly focuses on the strife between Dr. Livingston and Mother Miriam. The Mother Superior believes there is a metaphysical explanation for the baby’s conception, whereas Dr. Livingston believes someone is not forthcoming with the truth. John Pielmeier brings to the surface unpleasant issues questioning Catholic faith and modern science that still resonate today. In its original Broadway production Agnes of God starred Elizabeth Ashley (Dr. Livingstone), Geraldine Page (Mother Miriam) and Amanda Plummer (Agnes). This premier trio most likely had quite a bit to do with the play’s original success. The revival does not repeat the electricity of the original production. While Monica Hesse was absolutely wonderful as Agnes (she totally nails the performance) and Thierry Barson was very believable and provides a refined almost scary portrayal of Mother Miriam they are not able to carry the entire performance on their shoulders. This is a play of three equal parts and the weak link in this case is Dr. Livingston played by Annie O’Neill. Ms O’Neill seemed to be rushing her lines and very uncomfortable in her role as the truth obsessed psychiatrist. That said this production company shows great promise. The DC Arts Center is a small intimate space that suits this intense melodrama well; it is also one that magnifies any weaknesses in performance. If one keeps that in mind Agnes of God is not as disappointing as it may seem but does fall far short of its ambitious goals.. This was a very lofty project for a young company that is still searching for its identity. Like another religious story sometimes it takes a few misses with the slingshot before the giant falls.
John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God July 28-31 and August 4-7, 2005 at 7:30 pm DCAC: 2438 18th Street, NW Starring Thierry Barston, Monica Hesse and Annie O’neill Directed by Joylyn R. Hopkins, founder of Omaemoda Productions. A portion of each ticket will benefit a local charitable organization.