‘Agnes of God’

George Street Playhouse kicks off the new year with John Pielmeier’s 1982 religious whodunit.

By: Stuart Duncan
   George Street Playhouse continues its 30th season and kicks off the new year with John Pielmeier’s 1982 drama Agnes of God. The three-character play attempts to meld an intellectual religious mystery with deeply held faith and often slips into soap opera.
   A young novitiate has given birth to a baby in a convent; the newborn was discovered dead in a wastepaper basket, and the girl, Agnes, claims to have no memory either of the pregnancy or the birth. The mother superior of the order, Mother Miriam Ruth, considers the girl a complete innocent and would like to believe it some sort of a modern-day miracle birth.
   Dr. Martha Livingstone is the court-appointed clinical psychiatrist who must judge Agnes’ guilt, innocence and competency to satisfy the legal powers of a proper dispensation of the case. On the surface, the evening seems a straightforward series of confrontations, always with an eye and ear for the truth.
   But playwright Pielmeier has loaded "luggage" onto each character. Mother Miriam, it unfolds, has been married and has two children who have completely disowned her. Dr. Livingstone is a lapsed Catholic whose younger sister died in a convent of disregarded appendicitis. And Agnes is the product of a dysfunctional mother who brutally molested her.
   By the time, in Act II, when the playwright reveals that Agnes’ mother and Mother Miriam were sisters, you can be forgiven if you feel like yelling "too much." It’s difficult enough to write an intellectual play about faith, but virtually impossible if you insist on cramming sob-sister emotions into the mix.
   The three actresses handle the "luggage" superbly, flicking even the most provocative dialogue as if it might be farce. Suzzanne Douglas, chain-smoking (presumably to indicate insecurity) with a hint of arrogance, gives a sharply edged portrayal of a flawed diagnostic psychiatrist, trying desperately to find legal truths amidst faith-based dreams. "I want to believe in alternative reels," she says early in the evening, then refuses to admit other hands on the camera.
   Laurie Kennedy is a solid Mother Miriam, entirely comfortable inside her habit and with her narrow vision of the world — and prepared to battle furiously to protect it. Interestingly, her protestations are more believable than her late-in-the-evening admissions. It is sad to see her in a crumpled heap rather than in defeated defiance.
   Maria Dizzia is a delight as Agnes, truly offering a picture of innocence or at least an enigma. Playwright Pielmeier has given her long passages of hypnotic revelations that in less-sure hands might become maudlin. Dizzia brings bursts of repressed anger and hurt to those scenes, which are genuinely moving.
   Director Ted Sod has made few choices, leaving the decisions, for the most part, to the audience. The play doesn’t work well that way (the Norman Jewison movie, for example, was particularly ineffective with that technique). And the soap-opera ending is anti-climatic. Perhaps we should demand our own alternate ending.
Agnes of God continues at George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through Feb. 1. Performances: Tues -Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2, 7 p.m.; Jan. 15, 23, 31, 2 p.m. Tickets cost $28-$52. For information, call (732) 246-7717. On the Web: www.gsponline.org