One of the primary questions asked by the latest Studio Players production, playwright John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, is whether there is any space in contemporary society for the miraculous to dwell, where mysteries can deepen or simply be.
For Mother Miriam Ruth (Susan Wigglesworth), the mother superior who is charged with protecting the troubled young nun Agnes (Avery Wigglesworth), that space is a convent, and more specifically, it is within Agnes’ numinous singing. For others, like me, it could be the theater itself or looking up at the stars while lying on the grass.
Put another way, is it really necessary, or better, to bust all of our myths?
Director Paul Thomas draws the audience into these complicated questions in this understated, contemplative, and ultimately jarring drama about a young, virginal nun who doesn’t remember giving birth, getting pregnant, or how her baby came to be found dead in a wastepaper basket. She also exhibits signs of stigmata.
Psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone (Martha Bernier Campbell) is tasked with determining Agnes’ sanity for the court, but she is personally drawn into the mystery of Agnes and is determined to get to the bottom of what really happened. Agnes herself denies the birth. Mother Miriam believes it was a virgin birth, not caused by God, like Christ’s conception, but “allowed” by God. Dr. Livingstone thinks Agnes was raped and that someone else killed the baby.
But what really happened? The journey to that answer is less of a murder-mystery than a philosophical and psychological battle of wills, where science (as represented by Dr. Livingstone) and faith (as represented by Mother Miriam) duke it out to devastating effect.
David Bratcher’s minimalist set and lighting design suggests the play’s setting -- a psychiatrist’s office and a convent -- with a few simple pieces of furniture and even fewer props; a swelling backdrop of darkness seems to hint at the mysteries Mother Miriam aims to protect and the mystery of Agnes herself.
Campbell’s complex portrayal of Dr. Livingstone is a fascinating study in psychological deconstruction. She begins the play as a chain-smoking, nun-hating atheist who is confident that modern science can not only unravel the mystery of Agnes, but heal her as well. It is not just her confidence but her worldview that is ultimately shaken by her work with Agnes.
Likewise, Susan Wigglesworth’s mother superior is a potent adversary. They both want the same thing -- whatever is best for Agnes -- but their disagreements about what that is lead to heated conflict. Wigglesworth expertly conveys her character’s maternal fervor, rooted not so much in the belief in God but in the belief that Agnes is somehow touched by the divine, special in some way that the modern world cannot allow. She and Campbell have a palpable chemistry and flow on stage; scenes where they are verbally sparring, insults and accusations overlapping over one another, are among the show’s most potent moments.
Avery Wigglesworth, Susan’s real life daughter, delivers a stunningly visceral performance as Agnes . During her sessions with Dr. Livingstone, Avery’s Agnes convincingly exudes genuine piety and innocence. Her on-stage singing of sacred hymns ensnares both Dr. Livngstone and Mother Miriam with its haunting beauty. But once Dr. Livingstone begins to peel away the layers of Agnes’ psyche, she finds trauma and abuse too troubling for an “innocent” like Agnes to consciously process. The Carriage House theater is intimate enough for audiences to see one of Avery’s biggest performing strengths -- her eyes. Some of her finest moments are wordlessly conveyed with the eyes.
In the end, the mystery of Agnes is solved, at least in part, but at great cost. Was it worth it? Is the price of our quest for the literal truth the destruction of a greater truth? These are among the difficult questions that linger long after curtain call.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.