The title of American screenwriter and playwright John Pielmeir’s Agnes of God is actually a pun on the Latin phrase, “Agnus Dei” or “Lamb of God”...so sayeth Wikipedia. It’s a good pun, and quite appropriate as actor Julie Milillo’s Sister Agnes is as innocent as a lamb and appears on the way to slaughter, unless Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Nancy Linden) and psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Joan Crooks) can put away their differences long enough to solve this rather unusual murder mystery and save Sister Agnes from a life spent in prison or an asylum.
Here’s the plot: a nun in a convent, Sister Agnes, is found unconscious in her room (“cell” to use the proper parlance), “blood everywhere,” with a dead baby hidden in a wastepaper basket. Dr. Livingston bears a lifelong grudge against the Catholic Church and organized religion in general, but yearns for happy endings, while Mother Miriam, having once been “married with children,” knows more about the “real world out there” than Dr. Livingston might care to admit.
How did Sister Agnes, who claims to know nothing about where babies come from, get pregnant? Was the baby born dead or was it killed? Was there someone else with Sister Agnes in her room and if so, did that person kill the baby? Or did Sister Agnes commit the deed afterall? Is Sister Agnes a tabula rasa, marked only by God? Was she abused as a child? Is she a saint in the making, as she bleeds from her palms stigmata style?
Despite the weighty issues – God, molestation, dead babies -- Pielmeier’s script is sprinkled with comic moments that help break the tension. Consider this exchange as Dr. Livingston suspects that Sister Agnes may have had a tryst with one of the local priests, Fr. Martineau:
MARTHA: You've been alone together?
AGNES: At least once a week.
MARTHA: And you like that?
AGNES: Oh, yes.
MARTHA: Where do you meet?
AGNES: (obviously) In the confessional.
Each actor is exceedingly well cast in her role. It would be fairly easy to reduce each character to mere stereotype – the atheist/scientist versus the generic judgmental nun with Sister Agnes just Oephelia on loan from “Hamlet.”
But each actor brings out their characters’ many layers. At one moment, Crooks is detached from feeling, chain-smoking, matter-of-factly explaining her lack of “menstruation” when asked by Sister Agnes why she can’t have children…but later, on her knees, revealing a mother’s tenderness toward Agnes as she delves the pain that is both her patient’s and her own.
Nancy Linden is an exceedingly tall woman and therefore imposing as the “Mother Superior,” but she is hardly terrifying in that Catholic-grade-school-whack-you-with-a-steel-ruler way one might expect. In fact, she’s quite the opposite, especially when she breaks down to share a cigarette in a bonding moment with Dr. Livingston.
Milillo is an actor blessed with multiple talents, including a lovely voice, vital to a role that involves singing of a quality that Mother Miriam believes is evidence that Sister Agnes is touched by God. Millilo’s Agnes is irritated, uncomfortable, full of love, afraid, happy, euphoric, angry, innocent, resigned—it’s an outstanding performance, as her character does strain credulity despite the exposition we are provided. Would a woman, even in a convent, even fairly cloistered from society in her upbringing, not know she was pregnant or what sex is?
As those familiar with the Spotlighters are aware, the philosophy of “less is more” is always embraced by this diminutive theater now celebrating its 50th season. Director Allan Herlinger does a marvelous job transforming the Spotlighters’ just-shy-of-a-postage-stamp-size stage into Dr. Livingston’s psychiatrist’s office—a small desk, a few chairs, and some subtle lighting changes to signal action occurring in flashback, and this complex story of family, religion, love, death, God and mystery fits just fine, thank you very much.
Agnes of God continues its run at the Spotlighters (www.spotlighters.org), 817 St. Paul Street, now through March 18th, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20, Seniors (60+) $18, and Students $16 and may be purchased online at TicketTurtle; group rates available. Call 410-752-1225 or Tickets@spotlighters.org.