It is difficult to argue with the notion that we are, all of us, made up of what we arrived on this planet with (“Nature”), and what the planet did with (or, often, to) us as we grew (“Nurture,” or, perhaps, the lack thereof). Both psychiatry and religion are revered and reviled as having a hand in this make-up; there is no lack of finger-pointing by factions of either side at the other, and we can all think of those isolated cases where overzealous application of one or the other resulted in tragedy. Since religion is, as an institution, much older than psychiatry, we have a larger pool of tragedy to pull from; but since its inception, it seems, the tenets of psychiatry and religion have been at odds with each other.
And with good reason, to be sure. One is based on Faith, that which cannot be seen, touched, or even reasoned out (or, some might say, with). The other is based on Reason, study, application of proven analysis, and whenever possible, the basics of the larger science of Medicine in general, also a Science. So, argue the first group, where in that study is there room for miracles? Miracles, say the second, are merely events for which there is a reasonable explanation that we do not know yet. Read, Faith, says the first. Read, the furtherance of knowledge, retorts the second. And on and on. The two groups have been at loggerheads since the creation of Psychiatry as an actual branch of Medicine. And probably will be, long after we are gone.
Which is one of the reasons why the work of playwright John Pielmeier, Agnes of God, is so compelling. Using what seems to be a locked room mystery, Pielmeier so deftly pits these two stolid institutions against one another that it seems clear there will be, must be, a winner and a loser. With a cast of only three, Pielmeier presents a gripping, often terrifying and compelling work that does exactly what one of the characters, Mother Miriam Ruth, says it should: present far more questions than it does answers.
Last Thursday at Common Ground Theatre in Durham, NC, Ghost & Spice Productions of Chapel Hill opened a stunning production of this drama directed by Jordan Smith, using three company members who were handpicked for their roles. And it is an good thing, too, because this play is an absolute bear to pull off, for many reasons. We are happy to say that G&S does pull it off, in so exceptional a manner that, on Saturday night’s performance, there would have been absolutely no applause from this stunned audience at its close, had not the actresses made their requisite appearance for curtain call.
Agnes (Melissa Lozoff) is a novice at a nunnery that is led by Mother Miriam Ruth (Lenore Field). A newborn has been found in Agnes’ tiny cell, the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck and the tiny body stuffed in a wastepaper basket. Once the facts are made public, a psychiatrist is brought in to determine whether Agnes should stand trial. Dr. Martha Livingstone is the doctor selected for the task.
Mother Miriam (because she has no choice) dutifully brings Agnes to the doctor’s office; but she immediately makes it infinitely clear that she does not like or trust Dr. Livingstone or her ilk and that, for the sake of the young novice, the very best thing Martha could do is declare Agnes unfit and send her back to the nunnery. This, of course, Martha is loathe to do. At best, Agnes is looking at manslaughter. If fit for trial, she would go to prison; if unfit, she will go to an institution. As seen from Martha’s eyes, there is no in-between; certainly, Agnes would not in any event be returned to the place where this monstrous crime took place.
These three actresses are all well-known to Triangle audiences and all three are acutely in touch with the inner workings of the minds of their characters. Each of them can be relied upon to pull forth from any moment the passion, emotion, mirth, or fear from the dialogue; and we as viewers are, with this team at the helm, willing voyagers on the trip. But the outcome is not a win-or-lose situation; in this case, in the desire for one side to finally win, all three become losers.
There are layer upon layer upon layer of subtexts in this production, and these three touch each one masterfully. In a superbly wrought ensemble production that plays itself out on an empty set, save for one wooden chair apiece, this cast uses this finely etched character study to show us just what is at stake when zeal overcomes reason. There is only one chance at reason in this show, and we see it fade early on. What comes after, as is often the case, comes with only the best of intentions; but it travels that same road, nevertheless. Agnes, the most innocent of the three, is the actual victim here; but there is more than enough loss for all. And that total does not merely include the cast; it includes all of us, as well.
Ghost & Spice Productions presents Agnes of God Thursday-Saturday, Jan. 19-21 and 26-28, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Jan. 22 and 29, at Common Ground Theatre, 4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham, North Carolina. $14 ($12 students), except all tickets half-price on Thursdays. 888/239-9253. Ghost & Spice Productions: http://www.ghostandspice.com/season/agnes.html [inactive 7/07]. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1421. Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088683/.