“Agnes of God” explores miracles and madness at Puzzle Piece
FERNDALE, Mich.–Agnes of God is a searingly personal struggle wrapped in a philosophical debate nestled inside a psychological whodunnit. Some audience members at the Puzzle Piece Theatre might know the mid-80s film adaptation of the John Pielmeier play, which expanded the cast and reduced the dialog. But in its original stage format it is a play for a trinity of women: The Mother, the girl and the nonreligious shrink.
The first questions broached in the play are practical: Was the dead baby who was found in a convent murdered? If so, did the young nun, Agnes, who birthed the baby also kill it? And how did she become pregnant to begin with?
You’ll get no straight answers from Agnes–her court-appointed psychiatrist soon finds–and we are quickly taken down the rabbit hole of Agnes’ mind. Is this a woman with supernatural gifts – or a woman of supreme psychosis?
Agnes (Bryana Hall) is an ethereal and disturbed young woman who claims no memory of the night of the baby’s birth; she, at first, denies there even was an infant. She sees angels and her dead mother, and is prone to bursts of singing. (But this ain’t no “Sound of Music,” as the spontaneous songs can be as much eerie as comforting.)
The head of the convent, Mother Miriam Ruth (Connie Cowper), hovers over this young woman like a guardian angel. Yet it’s Agnes she sees as the blessed holy one, a conduit to a higher plane. Eventually, the older nun goes so far as to suggest Agnes experienced a father-free conception. Meanwhile Dr. Livingstone (Mandy Logsdon) brings her own baggage to this difficult professional challenge, her own reasons to loathe nuns while also needing to love a child.
Agnes’s set pieces of strangeness–both in the present or as flashbacks–are really the undercard to the main event, the epic battle between the Mother and the doctor, between faith and science, between reason and unexplained almost-miracles.
Cowper as Mother Miriam so comfortably inhabits her role. This is a no-nonsense woman with a spark of humor. On the surface she seems so sure of herself and her place in the world, and so fiercely protective of Agnes. But slowly she reveals she too has doubts and a need for something to reinforce her faith. Hall immerses herself further and further into Agnes’ (other-)worldliness as the evening progresses. (In an after-show chat, she also noted the role requires more singing than any musical she’s ever done.) Logsdon’s role demands her presence onstage the entire play. So one could hardly blame her for a brief moment of “going up” on a line opening night. (In post-show talk she shared how that one moment took her down a new path for the rest of the performance. That’s live theater for you.)
Laura Heikken has done a very solid job in this her first full-length directorial effort, while also handling sound and costumes. And with fairly simple rigging, D.B. Shroeder has created effective moody lighting.
Heikken and Shroeder have settled their peripatetic theater company well into the cozy confines of a former light industrial building (shared with Slipstream Theatre Initiative). It’s a space which makes for a very intense, close experience for the actors and audience.
The revisiting of this perplexing play is a perfect vehicle for Puzzle Piece.