By Daniel Skora
For those who have developed a healthy balance between the real and the mystical, faith is an affirmative action. For others whose lives have been thwarted by mistreatment or ignorance, faith can end up being a debilitating force. Still others have such an all-consuming faith as to make them seem odd and eccentric by secular standards. All saints are a bit crazy, as “Agnes of God”, the current presentation of Puzzle Piece Theatre, puts it.
Sister Agnes (Bryana Hall) is a complicated case. A young novice, her obedience to the Mother Superior and her holiness are unquestionable. Moreover, the wounds in her hands have all the characteristics of the stigmata. But Agnes has been found bleeding profusely in her room at the convent, a lifeless baby discarded in a nearby wastebasket. Murder appears to be the cause of the baby’s death, and Agnes has been accused of the crime. In order to determine her competency to stand trial, psychiatrist Martha Livingstone (Mandy Logsdon), has been appointed by the court to evaluate her. In order to speak with Agnes, Livingstone must first go through Mother Marian Ruth (Connie Cowper), who runs the convent.
Mother Marian is both suspicious of this interloper from the outside world and protective of Sister Agnes, who is of fragile mind. Almost immediately, the two clash. Livingstone is determined get at the truth of the baby’s death and finding out who is the father. Mother Miriam is sympathetic towards her young novice and maintains the possibility of divine intervention. She also appears to be more involved than she is willing to admit. Both Livingstone and Mother Miriam have pasts that have given them reasons to question their religious beliefs. Agnes herself is an enigma. She appears to know nothing about how babies are conceived, maintains that God was the father of the baby, and even under hypnosis, appears to be unable to tell what really happened.
Playwright John Pielmeier has written an emotionally charged drama that’s murder mystery, character study, and religious psychological thriller all rolled into one. The story is told in real time and in flashbacks, alternating between the psychiatrist’s office and the convent. Though Agnes’ name graces the title of the play, she is merely the conduit for the much broader theme of religious faith versus the realities of science and reason. The most thought-provoking scene occurs near the end of the first act when Livingstone and Mother Miriam trade thoughts on sainthood. It also contains one of the play’s few nods towards humor. Livingstone, a chain smoker, and Mother Miriam, a reformed smoker, raise the question of what brand of cigarettes the saints would have smoked if they were in fact smokers? Saint Thomas Moore, for one, would undoubtedly have smoked Parliaments.
Associate Artistic Director Lauren Heikkinen has set the bar high with her Puzzle Piece directorial debut. The casting is superb, with Cowper, who draws the play’s most interesting character, turning in a splendid performance. A heavenly white clouds/blue sky motif overlooks the sparsely furnished set that’s two-thirds psychiatrist office and one-third convent, with votive candles kept burning throughout the performance. Costumes, also by Heikkinen, feature two very realistic nun’s habits.
“Agnes of God” premiered on Broadway in 1982. It remains an intelligent and relevant piece of theatre and the Puzzle Piece’s worthy production deserves to be seen. Seating at the Puzzle Piece Theatre, whose performances take place at the Slipstream Theatre, is intimate. Come early, sit in the first row, and experience what it’s like to be “almost” a part of the performance.
“Agnes of God” runs through May 15th. Tickets are available online at www.puzzlestage.org, by phone at 313.258.3885, or emailing email@example.com with number of tickets and desired performance indicated. Puzzle Piece Theatre (remember, performances take place at the Slipstream Theatre) is located at 460 Hilton in Ferndale.