In all the ongoing discourse on the interwebs about religion, an intelligent, inquisitive voice is as rare as butterflies in a tornado. How refreshing, then, to hear just that in Renaissance Theaterworks’ current production of Agnes of God. John Pielmeier’s 1985 script (inspired by a tragic incident in New York State some years prior) might have a few dated references, but it’s greatest (and most welcome) anachronism is its subtle approach to the conflict between faith and reason. Taking the form of a psychological thriller, the play has some satisfyingly lurid elements— which director Suzan Fete treats with respect and tasteful restraint— but it ends up giving rationality and mysticism both their due, momentarily lifting the veil on the depths and heights of human experience.
The show also gives us the honor of watching two grand ladies of Milwaukee theater sparking off each other. As the hard-smoking atheist Martha Livingstone, Laura Gordon is always onstage, sustaining the taut thread of this discourse-heavy drama with the effortless grace of a seasoned veteran. With close-cropped hair and a non-nonsense pant suit, she’s the model of a modern androgynous power woman. But she meets her match in the witty, perceptive Mother Miriam Ruth, played with sparkle and grandmotherly charm by Flora Coker. Both the nun and the psychiatrist have their agendas and secrets, which gradually come to light in dialog that crackles with ideas. The two actors keep up the tension in an epic tug of war, with Sister Agnes, a troubled young novice under Mother Superior’s authority, in the middle.
As bluntly revealed in the first line of the play, a dead newborn infant was found in Sister Agnes’ room, and Livingstone, as the court-ordered psychiatrist, comes with the power of the medical/legal state to discover the truth. The young woman, played credibly and with a gorgeous singing voice by Milwaukee High School of the Arts graduate Rána Roman, is clearly not all there: in her childish speech she drops vague hints of having been terribly abused by an alcoholic mother, and claims to remember nothing about any baby. Yet she also radiates an otherworldly simplicity that might be interpreted as sanctity; indeed, the Mother Superior claims to have witnessed her manifest the stigmata—bleeding from the palms said to indicate sainthood—and even suggests that the baby may have been conceived by a near-miraculous “spontaneous parthenogenesis.” As the doctor’s search for truth becomes obsessive, she begins to resemble that archetypal investigator Oedipus, and her quest leads to similarly tragic consequences.
Set designer Anthony Lyons provides a clean, abstract stage that references both the simplicity of the convent and the nuns’ habits, and provides an ideal screen for Anthony Lyons modest but breathtakingly effective lighting effects. If anything, the production is so tasteful it might soften some of the play’s potential impact, but it also teases out the script’s truly subtle insights, that might otherwise be overshadowed by its pulpier elements. It’s especially interesting to realize how much Catholic spirituality depends on the body—the blood of the lamb and all that—here set off against the blood of menstruation and childbirth. Agnes has a vision, reminiscent of the writings of the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen, that evokes both ovulation and Dante’s mystic rose. And indeed, which is more miraculous?
What do we know about saints, anyway? Mother Miriam says “We have no saints anymore—we’re too sophisticated.” Maybe the measure of a saint isn’t their brilliance, or even their good deeds, but the power they have on us to awaken our better natures. Agnes of God reflects the sad truth that such people often end badly, sacrifices to the jealous institutions of power.
Renaissance Theaterworks presents
Agnes Of God
by John Pielmeier
Playing through February 14
Broadway Theatre Center
158 N. Broadway