Friday, March 28, 2014

Review: Agnes of God at the Fine Arts Center

Posted By on Fri, Mar 28, 2014 at 11:07 AM

Audiences may leave John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God (1983) with a surer sense of where they stand in the polemical tug of war between science and religion. How the play might have contributed to this certainty, however, is impossible to defend or grasp.

Pielmeier must be called to account for having created three characters loaded with contrast and potency, but arranging their motivations, philosophies, and utterances so haphazardly as to shoot his own dramatic hull full of holes. The ship sinks slowly, and inevitably, in Agnes of God, but not without impressive displays of rhetoric, compassion, and emotive force.

Nonetheless, Scott RC Levy’s production at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center gives the play — a long-running hit on Broadway and a notable film — every possible chance, and is well worth seeing. Agnes of God does have a certain forward motion going for it, even when that motion seems off the trail to pursuing the central facts or truth of the case.

At issue is the sanity of a novice nun, Agnes (Carmen Vreeman), who has murdered her newborn with its own umbilical cord and deposited the corpse in a wastebasket. She claims to have no recollection of the event (yet has gone to great lengths to conceal her pregnancy). Court-appointed psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone (Jane Fromme) is enlisted to conduct a series of examinations for evidence that will lead the novitiate either to the penitentiary or an asylum, presumably for life. A guardian Mother Superior named Miriam Ruth (Kathy Paradise) puts up a formidable defense against either, or any strictly legal course of action, based on the religious and psychological factors of the case. Her choice is for the offending young mother to remain in the convent, and therefore exempt from punishment as a criminal. Apparently, the psychiatrist has it within her power to influence the court in this direction.
click to enlarge JEFF KEARNEY
  • Jeff Kearney
All three women come equipped with ripe admixtures of dogma, skepticism, faith, and madness to get things rolling and sustain dramatic tension. But Pielmeier’s strategy is to let the doctor and the guardian Mother slug it out to a draw — and that’s it. He consigns us to an erratic see-sawing between the two poles, and ultimately, Agnes is left to resolve the situation for herself, if that is what Pielmeier’s fate for her is meant to imply. What appear at first to be sound theoretical and spiritual approaches disintegrate into bluster and snits by the two ladies with no consistency, balance, or targeted plotting by Pielmeier. Nothing fuses into a reasonable determination of cause and effect, from either a religious or a psychoanalytic perspective; we get only a disharmony of details to which Pielmeier assigns equal weight, though they are compelling details.

It’s a maxim in theater that “all scenes are chase scenes,” and Levy directs the action accordingly, seeing us through wordy text with a discerning eye for emphasis and restraint. Dr. Livingstone is herself an apostate from the church, and her enlightened disbeliefs are persuasively shaken by Agnes as the examinations proceed. Mother Miriam proves to be implicated and attached to Agnes in ways that may seem contrived, but that still add momentum because they are put to such good use on stage.

With Levy’s help, Pielmeier achieves a convincing outcome, a symmetry in the two women, in presenting their modified self-knowledge. One must pick and choose, however, among the legal and psychological tokens he has scattered about to decide which are motivating and which are not. And this running task of selecting and organizing details in Agnes of God gets a little tiresome, and distracting. It’s the playwright’s job to do that, not ours.

Moreover, as a discipline we learn way less about psychology in Agnes of God than we do of theology, and the play is severely lop-sided in this way with avoidance. There’s a hidden advocacy going on here by Pielmeier on behalf of beliefs and practices of the church that are at best questionable, and to many, blatantly superstitious. We are expected to swallow them whole, and accept without question as legitimate and potentially exonerating of Agnes as any secular definitions of sanity, crime, or pathology might be. As a result, what we are meant not to question in Agnes of God invades and disturbs the things that we are, as if entering a side door like an unwanted guest.

Agnes also remains an enigma. There’s no question that the harm she suffered as a child dictates her behavior and prescribes her outcome. It does not, on the other hand — nor does the halo of supernatural attributes Pielmeier and her guardian Mother attach to her — dismiss the question of her criminality. The so-called “innocence” Mother Miriam keeps insisting on, in both Agnes’ character and her actions, is betrayed by Agnes’ ability to shift from reason to madness with expediency when it suits her. Her interrogations with Dr. Livingstone reveal this repeatedly.

Still, Levy’s production at the FAC is cause to celebrate rather than resist Agnes of God. For one, and chiefly, better acting can’t be found anywhere. If Pielmeier is indecisive or vague in his priorities, Fromme, Paradise and Vreeman certainly aren’t, and they play to the fullest without giving in to Pielmeier’s tendency to sensationalize. Director Levy and set designer Christopher Sheley can share credit for an appealing use of the spacious mainstage, Sheley’s set both a dreamscape and an arena somewhere, like the play, between heaven and earth.

Agnes of God, through April 6; Thursdays through Saturdays 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees 2 p.m. Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St. Tickets:  $15 -$37; for more information, call 634-5583 or visit csfineartscenter.org.

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