Agnes of God, dramatist John Pielmeier’s controversial psychological play, is strong meat, and not to everyone’s taste. Some audience members for Raleigh Ensemble Players’ presentation of Agnes of God — the second local production of this play this year—may find the show’s subject matter— a mysterious pregnancy (tragically followed by infanticide) behind convent walls — distasteful and its R-rated dialogue offensive.

Scenic and lighting designer Thomas Mauney’s cross-shaped set divides Artspace Gallery 2 diagonally, and its painted backdrop looks like one of the cards in a Rorschach Inkblot Test. The inverted triangular shape suggests both the female reproductive system and a silhouette of a nun wearing a black-and-white habit.

Although a cross-shaped set may have seemed like a clever idea in theory, in practice it dissipates dramatic tension by distancing the play’s three characters—iconoclastic forensic psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone (Betsy Henderson), protective Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Carole Marcotte), and emotionally fragile novice Sister Agnes (Beth Popelka) — from each other. Agnes, who has the singing voice of an angel, is charged with murdering her baby shortly after its birth by strangling it with its own umbilical cord and stuffing it in a trashcan.

REP’s cross-shaped set is littered with ashtrays — to accommodate the chain-smoking Dr. Livingstone — and cutout sections here and there to provide the characters with places to sit during a series of interviews to determine whether Sister Agnes killed her baby and if she is sane enough to stand trial. If the set is intermittently awkward, the lighting (also by Thomas Mauney ) is problematical throughout the evening. Starting with Dr. Livingstone’s opening speech, it doesn’t quite spotlight all the characters at all their key moments.

Agnes of God asks a series of questions: How did Sister Agnes get pregnant? Is this pregnancy another virgin birth, could it be the result of hysterical parthenogenesis, or is there another, more earthly explanation?

How did Sister Agnes conceal her pregnancy from all and sundry for nine months? How could this otherworldly novice, whom Mother Superior believes to be one of God’s true innocents, have possibly murdered her newborn baby?

John Pielmeier’s play provides answers to all of these questions, but only after the play’s three characters unpack a veritable house-full of emotional baggage. Agnes of God is tough to watch, and whether your like it or not may well depend upon your religious point of view. Catholics and Protestant Fundamentalists, in particular, will have problems with the characters and their salty language.

Although her hair is dyed a distracting mercurochrome-red, Betsy Henderson gives a passionate and compelling performance as Dr. Livingstone, a lapsed Catholic with a lot of deep-seated and barely suppressed anger toward the church. Carole Marcotte’s Mother Miriam Ruth is a real rock — indeed, she provides a perfect foil for the skeptical psychiatrist — but Beth Popelka makes Sister Agnes a trifle too weird — too bug-eyed — to be completely believable.

Director Carnessa Ottelin does her best to elicit convincing characterizations from her talented cast, but the material here is a bit over the top; and Thomas Mauney’s cross-shaped set creates problems with keeping this intimate confessional drama truly intimate. Costume designer Diana Waldier does an excellent job on the nuns’ habits and the psychiatrist’s business attire, but sound designer Julie Jones needs to tweak the soundscape to make it more intelligible.

When the show opened last night, the cast hadn’t quite jelled. Knowing each of these fine actresses, I am sure that REP’s rendition of Agnes of God will get substantially stronger with each performance and the lighting deficiencies will be speedily remedied. The set, however, will probably continue to be a problem throughout the run.

Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Agnes of God Friday-Saturday, Feb. 10-11 and 16-18, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Feb 19, at 7 p.m.; and Wednesday-Friday, Feb. 22-24, at 8 p.m. in Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $15 ($12 students and seniors). 919/832-9607 or [inactive 9/06]. Note: There will be an audio described and sign-language-interpreted performance Feb. 17th, with a preshow tactile/touch tour starting at 7:15 p.m. Raleigh Ensemble Players: [inactive 9/06]. Internet Broadway Database: Internet Movie Database: