In a convent of cloistered Catholic nuns, a baby lies in a wastebasket. She has lived for less than an hour, before being strangled with her own umbilical cord. In another part of the room, her mother, a holy nun, lies unconscious and bleeding, mind and memory in ruins. The pathologists and psychologists and police and lawyers and…and critics will come later, but for now let us take it for what it is: a scene of unspeakable horror, in which evil stands triumphant over good, and God is mocked.
But this is not some iteration of The Exorcist. This is the story of the infant’s mother, the God-drunk Sister Agnes (Zoe Walpole) who is twenty-one years old but will always be a child. It is also the story of the tough-as-nails Mother Superior (Nanna Ingvarsson), who makes it her business to protect this child — and perhaps the convent — from the probing eyes of Dr. Martha Livingston (Felecia Curry), who the Court has appointed to evaluate Agnes’ mental state. And it is Dr. Livingston’s story too; the story of a woman who has turned to science to answer questions that religion has answered inadequately.
Mostly, though, it is a story about miracles. Joan of Arc, an uneducated 16-year-old peasant girl, outgeneraled the best military men of France and England. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who seemed to spring from his mother’s womb with a baton in hand, wrote symphonies at the age of five. Agnes, who never went to school, sings like an angel, and seems to have the power to bring joy from a well of despair.
Agnes, though a spiritual being, is ground down by this carnal earth. The product of a brutal upbringing, she despises herself, refusing to eat and causing gaping wounds to appear on the palm of her hand, seemingly through the power of her own mind. Like Joan, and like any sufferer of dementia praecox, she hallucinates, but her visions are only of more pain and misery.
Agnes of God closes November 24,, 2019. Details and tickets
The central dilemma, of course, is to determine who made Sister Agnes pregnant, and who killed her child. But to the two antagonists, the dilemma plays out differently. To Mother Miriam, it is to keep Agnes out of secular institutions — jail, or a mental institution — where her peculiar gifts would suffocate, and she would die. To Dr. Livingston, it is to extricate Agnes from her medieval surroundings, and into an environment where science can bring her to her best self.
John Pielmeier’s play is forty years old, but the ferocity with which these veteran actors tuck into it will make you forget its rust spots. Ingvarsson, who had a couple of line problems in this early-run show, nonetheless puts on an acting clinic, from the very first line. “Dr. Livingstone, I presume,” she says, bounding into the room, hand outstretched, chortling at her own joke — and we see at once someone who uses wit to control the situation, having a little joke at the other person’s expense while being all seeming robustness and good cheer. Thirty-four years before the term was ever used, Ingvarsson’s Mother Miriam is a master of soft power.
Dr. Livingstone is traditionally hero or villain depending on where you sit on the faith-science spectrum, but Curry manages to transcend such binary thinking by making her supernally vulnerable. Curry’s Livingstone is no weakling, but she carries weakness with her: she has an Achilles Heart. In seeking to protect Agnes from what she sees as cant and superstition, Livingstone seeks to protect herself; the shadow of the unknown God, which has so flooded Agnes’ life, is on Livingstone’s doorstep, and Curry lets us know it every moment she’s on stage.
Miriam, too, lives with a compromised belief system. We see it in a scene in which she and Livingstone, in a moment of brief comradery, speculate what brands the Saints would have smoked, had tobacco been around in their day. (Director Rick Hammerly imported the scene into the play from the movie, with Pielmeier’s consent). In a few moments, though, Miriam’s thoughts have moved to the absence of Saints in the present day, the clear implication being that God has gone home, and left us alone.
This is why Agnes is so special to her; the young nun seems to be touched by God, in all His glory and horror. We see Agnes, prostate on the floor, calling her body disgusting and her mind and soul inadequate. This is pathological, and Miriam recognizes it, but it is a difference in kind, not degree, from the Christian tradition of mortification of the flesh, or the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18: 9-14), in which the tax collector won God’s approval by recognizing his own sinfulness. Miriam sees in Agnes the treasured modern Saint — not saintly because of good works, but because she was an instrument of the Almighty in the womb, and for every day after that.
In order to bring that extraordinary thought to life, we need an extraordinary Agnes, and Walpole gives us that. The world utterly confuses her, but she is certain who she is, even though who she is may horrify us — and, sometimes, her. Walpole’s Agnes is not a stupid person, but she is otherworldly; our questions make no sense to her, even as her answers make no sense to us. Her purity is so convincing, and so different from the ambiguity in which Miriam, Livingstone, and the rest of us live, that it seems possible that she is closer to the ineffable than we are, despite all the terrible events. To top all this, Walpole has an extraordinary singing voice (nicely enhanced by Kenny Neal’s good sound design) — so much so that I searched the program, in vain, to find the name of the professional singer whose voiced was dubbed for hers. Walpole — who I last saw playing the role of Vixen in The Klunch’s Adult Entertainment — shows as much range as any actor in Washington.
There are some plot holes — the biggest being how Miriam could imagine that Agnes would remain in the convent, no matter what Livingstone’s conclusions were — and some rust (DNA testing — which was widespread four years after the play debuted — could help establish paternity) but this slam-bang production, under Hammerly’s steady hand, will help you to ignore them until after you get home.
The Catholic Church, now under siege for the sins of its stewards, is not the powerful creature it was when Pielmeier wrote Agnes of God, but the desire to see ourselves as eternal beings continues, and continues to drive our decisions.
Agnes of God by John Pielmeier, directed by Rick Hammerly, featuring Felecia Curry, Nanna Ingvarsson, and Zoe Walpole . Lighting designer: William D’Eugenio . Sound designer: Kenny Neal . Costume designer: Alison Johnson . Set designer: Greg Stevens . Movement choreographer: Jenny Male . Technical director: Jon Townson . Master electrician: Cassandra Saulski . Production assistant: Dar Gazder . Graphic designer: Douglas Shore . Stage manager: Solo HalleSelassie . Produced by Factory 449 at the Anacostia Arts Center . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.