Faith of the Heart

George Street Playhouse’s production of ‘Agnes of God,’ a taut murder mystery set in a convent, promises to be an emotional and thought-provoking drama.

By: Jim Boyle

Suzzanne Douglas (left) plays a doctor investigating the mysterious death of a baby in a convent and questions the implicated nun, played by Maria Dizzio (right), in the George Street Playhouse production Agnes of God.

   In many ways, the day after Christmas is just as important as the actual holiday. Most people need that full day just to recover from the previous day’s events. New gifts can be opened and enjoyed, the mountain of dishes needs to be conquered, and sometimes we all just have to sit on the couch and relax.
   The cast and crew of George Street Playhouse’s production of Agnes of God didn’t have that luxury. After two days off for the holidays, it was right back to work, rehearsing for the play’s Jan. 9 opening.
   "There’s no rest for the weary," says co-star Suzzanne Douglas. "Rehearsals are going very well, but we have such a short time and a massive amount of material. But that’s the way it is in regional theater. It’s not like Broadway theaters, where you have four weeks. It’s quite exciting, but very difficult. You have to be ready to go and you have to mind your Ps and Qs. It’s not for the faint of heart."
   Running through Feb. 1, Agnes of God, which premiered on Broadway in 1982, opens with a shock when a dead baby is found in a wastepaper basket at a convent. Perhaps just as shocking, Sister Agnes, a young nun found unconscious adjacent to the grisly scene, turns out to be the infant’s mother.
   Playwright John Pielmeier combines a taut murder mystery with a carefully woven plot that explores the particular circumstances revolving around the baby’s conception. Perhaps the biggest question is the father’s identity. The carefully secluded convent is miles away from civilization, and the only man is the drunken Father Metineau, the nun’s spiritual adviser. There is one other solution to the mystery, and it’s one that could have earthshattering implications.
   "The play asks a lot of questions, which I like, but it doesn’t really answer them," says Ms. Douglas. "Instead, it has the audience think for itself. We’ve stopped reading and thinking as a nation, and we need to start asking more questions. The piece is so timely because it establishes hope for another possibility for things that are happening, and our nation is without hope right now. We need something to believe in."
   As Dr. Martha Livingston, Ms. Douglas is assigned to question Agnes — played by Maria Dizzia — and evaluate her story. Meanwhile, the convent’s Mother Miriam Ruth (Laurie Kennedy) at first assists the investigation, but soon stonewalls the inquisitive doctor. As the story moves on, startling secrets come out as faith and sanity are examined. It is clear that Dr. Livingston is not a big fan of the Catholic Church and even questions her own belief in God.
   "She’s very fascinating," says Ms. Douglas. "She’s very much like me, but on the other hand she’s not like me. I like her a lot. She had her faith and lost it and is now starting to regain it. She’s an atheist, and I understand her point of view because I was there a few years ago before I got saved."
   The ideas and possibilities brought up by Mr. Pielmeier’s script present a daunting task of understanding the underlying subtexts. While in the end it is a fictional story, it is powerful enough to have a lasting effect on the performers.
   "In any part you explore the way you feel about things," says Ms Dizzia, a native of Cranford. "It brings you closer to your character if you examine your own feelings. We did a lot of table work as a group and had a lot of discussions centering on the text and the issues of the play. It’s a very difficult play to do, but no one does the play by themselves. There’s a very ‘group’ mentality that keeps the energy circular."
   Ms. Dizzia will be making her George Street debut as Sister Agnes. After studying theater at Rutgers University, she moved to New York to try her luck. She’s appeared at the Public Theater in New York City, as well as traveling for work in Alabama, Texas and California.
   She’s benefited from the time spent with her two co-stars, and hopefully Ms. Dizzia’s debut will hold the same impact that Ms. Douglas’ had when she starred in Wit at the opening of the 2000-2001 season. Since then, Ms. Douglas has become a beloved staple at the New Brunswick theater, turning in acclaimed performances in 2001’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill and 2002’s A Night in Tunisia.
   "I feel so blessed to continue to work on stage and thankful to have a home here," says Ms. Douglas. "It’s great that they give me roles not traditionally played by African-Americans.
   "When Ted (Sod, director of Wit and Agnes of God) asked me in the first time, he didn’t want me to audition me for ‘Wit.’ I asked why he cast me, he said he was impressed with what I was doing personally. I had just run a triathlon, and he figured since I was courageous enough to do that, I was courageous enough to do the play."
   Ms. Douglas had to call on that courage and strength to tackle the text of Agnes of God.
   "It is emotionally exhausting," says Ms. Douglas. "My character talks all the time. The playwright leads you down one path, and then, uh oh, he’s doing something else. It’s big puzzle, but he puts the pieces together very nicely."
Agnes of God plays at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, Jan. 9-Feb. 1, with previews Jan. 6-8, 8 p.m. Performances: Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2, 8 p.m., Sun. 2, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15, 2 p.m.; Jan. 17, 8 p.m. only. Tickets cost $26-$52. For information, call (732) 246-7717. On the Web: