The compelling play, at Tacoma’s Dukesbay Theater through March 17, grapples intensely with issues of faith and logic, worldliness and spirituality, and guilt and innocence. None of them are cut and dry.
I don’t generally give a pass to community theatre on assessing critically the acting, stage chemistry, or direction. The reason is singular: to ignore shortcomings in those areas would devalue the low-budget/small-theatre productions that really do shine.
This is one of them. Agnes of God, on now through March 17 at Dukesbay Theater in downtown Tacoma, is an excellent production and a captivating show.
Supporting the adage that truth is stranger than fiction, the play, by John Pielmeier, was inspired by a true story in which a dead baby was found in a convent and the presumed mother, a nun, denied giving birth or being pregnant. Agnes of God centers on psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone (played by Maria Valenzuela), who is hired by the court to assess the mental state of a young novice nun, Sister Agnes (played by Cecilia Lewis), over the objections of Mother Miriam Ruth (played by Laurie Sifford). Agnes is accused of killing her newborn, who was found deposited into a wastebasket in her convent bedroom. That’s trouble enough, but no one (including Agnes herself) seemed to know she was pregnant, and no one seems to be a candidate for the position of the baby’s father, either.
Agnes is presented as an innocent, pure in heart and totally naive of the world — particularly on issues of sex & sexuality. She seems to have no grasp of where babies come from or how they get there, and no desire to learn anything about the matter, either. Her effective guardian, Mother Superior, would like to make sure she stays that way, and maintain her own faith that Agnes is special, blessed by God; however the infant came to be (and died) is an unexplainable tragedy. In contrast to Mother Superior’s faith in Agnes’s purity, Dr. Livingstone is just as sure that can’t be right; something is amiss, and she wants the full story.
Valenzuela’s Dr. Livingstone has all of those traits in ‘Agnes’: the complex balance of compassion and cool that makes her an inviting figure to talk to but nobody’s fool.
The characters’ divergent approaches to faith and rationality are a core tension in the play. Dr. Livingstone is in search for rationality and logic in a situation that, on its face, has neither. But she’s also biased against the Catholic church, and nuns in particular, from a horrible experience in her own family early in life. Mother Superior can sense that, and has a history of her own: more worldly than she appears, she has lived out all of that which Dr. Livingstone accuses her of ignorance, before finding the church at a later age. At various points, both show themselves to be mere mortals, and both press up against the bounds of their own professional and ethical obligations.
And what of Agnes? Well, that remains the mystery to unravel. What Dr. Livingstone dredges up through any means she can, including hypnosis, will help determine Agnes’s fate: to the hospital as an insane person; to prison as a murderer; or, in the unlikeliest of all cases, to freedom, as truly an innocent.
If all of that sounds a lot like watching one of the twisted religious episodes of Law & Order: SVU, it is. The whole thing plays out like an investigation, in which the story begins too convoluted to believe, and gets worse before it gets better. But the best part of SVU for me has always been watching the way in which Detective Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) uses compassion and approachability, mixed with keen intellect and a steely resolve, to get at the truth. Valenzuela’s Dr. Livingstone has all of those traits in Agnes: the complex balance of compassion and cool that makes her an inviting figure to talk to but nobody’s fool.
Valenzuela really gets the part, and it’s hard to overstate the importance of her performance. Dr. Livingstone is on stage literally the entire show, and actively engaged in speaking roles for most of it. No matter how good the other actors, a mediocre or uninspired performance in this role would have caused the whole show to drag horribly. They needn’t worry: Valenzuela is flawless in the role.
The supporting actors, who are significant ones, also excel. Sifford’s Mother Superior is warm but protective, and turns more sharp and assertive as the questioning — of her charge, her convent, and her faith — gets more invasive. She’s a true believer, being tested. Lewis’s Agnes is shockingly naive — exactly how she needs to be. Lewis is stunning in the role, both in her innocence and with a heavenly voice as well — both of the traits the textual references demand of her. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better cast for this production.
The show is played out on a very simple stage and minimal set: a cross and two candles, a tiny table and stool, another table-desk and two chairs, with towering black curtains as the backdrop. Sound and lighting cues are minimal. Nyree Martinez directs, and does an excellent job with the characters’ mannerisms and interactions with one another; with the pacing, keeping the two-hour show efficient and tight; and with the flow and blocking, somehow maintaining clear sightlines and an intense view even from my seat with a rough angle off to the far side. Both in visualizing the movement and handling the tough material, it was clear Martinez’s direction proceeded from a firm grasp of the play and its characters.
With apologies to fellow Seattle realist-cynics … I don’t have any complaints. Dukesbay’s Agnes of God is an intense play, done well, with characters and conflicts fully realized, in a community setting.
It was a standing ovation well-deserved.
Agnes of God runs through 3/17 at the Dukesbay Theater in Tacoma. Tickets are $15, available here. Accessibility notes: bathrooms are gendered and multi-stall; theatre is up significant stairs and has no elevator access.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.