Theater

Singing Lofty Praise for Agnes of God: Epic Theatre Seeks the Truth

Agnes of God, by John Pielmeier, is billed as ‘A searing story of a young nun faced with assessing the murder of a newborn. The secrets exposed and the faith challenged in this gripping play will leave audiences questioning who they believe – and why.’ Gripping indeed! Thanks to some powerful acting, as well as expert directing by Lynne Collinson, you can expect to be moved by this forceful piece.

“We’ve assembled a powerhouse production team for this incredible play,” says artistic director Kevin Broccoli, which includes assistant director Peggy Becker, stage manager Samantha Gaus (who also designed the lighting with an assist by Alexander Sprague, Terry Shea (sound), and a cast of Epic favorites. “It’s an all-star line-up of talent that we’re very lucky to have.”

The cast consists of just three characters. Melanie Stone is the first to arrive as Dr. Martha Livingstone, a court-appointed psychiatrist whose job it is to determine whether young Agnes is of sound mind. She speaks to us in a firm but fair monologue, and you just know she’s going to go for the jugular by the end, as Livingstone’s strong personality is apparent right away. This comes into play as Mother Miriam Ruth, portrayed by Lee Rush, enters. The spirited duo immediately square off in a power play, showing us they have more in common than they wish to admit. Rush does a fine job filling the shoes of a woman who was once a married mother (admittedly not a very good one), heavy smoker and devout Catholic. Those are tough shoes to fill, now living in a nunnery and mothering a lost soul. The two women pair nicely, leaving audiences thirsting for more of the roller coaster exchange of confrontation and mutual caring.

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If these two stalwart performers weren’t commanding enough, we are then introduced to a timid Agnes, her innocence changing the dynamic of the female energy on stage. Don’t be fooled, however, by Angelique Dina’s shy demeanor or her character’s beautifully angelic singing voice (performed by a recorded Habibah Quddus). As the play develops, her captivating mannerisms and altering expressiveness give way to lofty wailing that chilled me to the bone! Her very name suggests she was born to play this role. 

Collinson is no stranger to Agnes of God, having portrayed the ingénue in the ’80s. “When Kevin offered me the opportunity to direct, I jumped at the chance to come full circle with the play. I wondered how the script would hold up in 2020. Initially, I thought the play might be dated, but quickly found that its themes still resonate – particularly the issue of faith versus fact – and how people can believe what they need to believe, despite evidence to the contrary.” She adds, “We also explored how each character’s trauma – Agnes’ physical and emotional abuse, the doctor’s loss of her sister and loss of faith, Mother’s estrangement from her biological children – impacted their health, their objectivity, their judgment.” 

The lighting (aside from an elegant stained-glass window effect) is simple, with bright lights while the energy is loud, growing softer during the more quiet, contemplative moments and blues on the outskirts as characters reflect on the past. Costumes (by Jillian Eddy) suited the typical formal garb of the role each performer played; the setting is bare, allowing the audience to focus on the changing action.

The Power of the Truth is this season’s theme for Epic Theatre. “If you’re going to do a season about truth, it seems necessary to touch upon religion,” says Broccoli, “and we have not one, but two shows we’re working on this month that look at religion, religious extremism, and the relationship between organized religion and institutional ignorance. The denial of the truth and the consequences of it. One is Agnes of God and the other is the musical version of Stephen King’s Carrie, produced by the Academy Players in association with our company.” He says this piece poses questions about faith and fixation, adding, “Like last season’s The Christians, this play isn’t about bashing religion. It’s about the danger of hiding the truth when it doesn’t coincide with your chosen belief system.”

Initially, Broccoli said he felt the play was overdone and wasn’t keen on bringing it in. “It seemed like it would be the kind of theatrical antique that doesn’t get produced anymore for a reason.” He then had a change of heart, considering the questions it asks and comparing it to other plays that deserve a professional revival. “Here’s hoping Agnes is next on that list.”

Epic Theatre presents John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God through Feb 23, Friday and Saturday nights, including a 3pm Sunday matinee on February 23. 50 Rolfe Square, Cranston. For more information, visit epictheatreri.org, or call 401-490-9475.

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