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Agnes sings. Beautifully. The nunnery where Agnes is a novice rings with her voice as she sings songs of praise to God. But Agnes has become the center of controversy. Within her cell, in a waste paper basket, there is discovered the body of a newborn baby girl. How the child came there, how it died, and whether Agnes had anything to do with the death is the meat of this play, Agnes of God, by John Pielmeier, now currently being produced by Forest Moon Theater, a community theatre based in Wake Forest.
Agnes of God is a taut three-woman play that pits two very strong women against each other over the weak third woman, Agnes herself. Agnes (Jill Cromwell) is considered by Mother Miriam Ruth (Gilly Conklin) to be an Innocent, someone who has absolutely no concept of the outer world or its mechanizations, realities, or consequences. That this child has been discovered in her room seems surreal, but Agnes has been charged in the baby's death, and it is the job of Dr. Martha Livingston (Benji Taylor) to find out whether Agnes is competent to stand trial for the child's murder. If she is found incompetent, she goes to an institution; if she is found competent, and guilty, she goes to prison. Both of these outcomes are unacceptable to Mother Miriam, who feels that Agnes has no place anywhere in the world but at the nunnery. Miriam and Martha have savage and almost physical confrontations over this predicament. Miriam does not concede to Martha's power to decide Agnes' fate. Martha, on the other hand, will not rest until she learns the truth about how this baby died, and why.
The play takes place in Martha's medical office. Designed by director Bob Baird, the set consists of Martha's desk stage left and a pair of large and comfortable armchairs stage right. A giant picture window made of scrim forms the backdrop. This office is where Martha interviews Agnes and Miriam. When Agnes sings, she usually does so from behind this scrim. We come to equate "behind the scrim" with "at the nunnery."
One of the cruxes of Agnes of God is that Martha, due to a long history of her own in the Catholic Church, is an atheist. She considers God to be anathema to her work as a psychiatrist. He gets in the way. Miriam, on the other hand, cannot separate God from the situation. Agnes' current predicament is thoroughly wrapped up in God, and regardless of her guilt or innocence, Miriam feels she should serve out whatever punishment she gets at the nunnery; Martha is absolutely against any such notion.
This argument over Agnes' fate becomes something much bigger. When Miriam and Martha argue over Agnes, the fight becomes the Church or religion against science or psychiatry. The two fight over each other's beliefs as much as they do over Agnes. The results of these sessions ultimately decide Agnes' fate, and the process leaves scars not only on Agnes, but on all three of these diverse but inextricably linked women.
Forest Moon's presentation of Agnes of God was a gripping and enervating experience. The struggle formed by these three dynamic and talented actresses was palpable and got the audience caught up in the argument between good and evil. As Miriam, Conklin was as protective as a mother lion. As Martha, Jones was relentless in her character's pursuit of the truth. As Agnes, Cromwell gave a hair-raising performance as her character progressed through hypnosis sessions and pregnancy. This work was arresting in its intensity and power, and all three of these actresses gave 100%.
Agnes of God is a thunderous trek through the mind, body, and soul of a woman in peril, and this presentation of the work is not to be missed. The production continues in Wake Forest through Sunday, February 19 before moving to Sonorous Road in Raleigh from February 23-26. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.