‘Agnes of God’ remains a weighty ‘play of the mind, and miracles’ at Summit Playhouse

agnes of god review

From left, Debra Carozza, Missy Renwick and Jennifer Padley co-star in “Agnes of God” at The Summit Playhouse.

When Mother Miriam meets Dr. Martha Livingstone for the first time in the play “Agnes of God,” she makes a little joke. “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” she says, repeating the famous question with which journalist Henry Morton Stanley greeted the missing missionary David Livingstone in Africa in 1871.

The attempt at humor falls flat — not because of the way the line is delivered, but because playwright John Pielmeier wants it to fall flat. He wants to show that Martha Livingstone, who doesn’t laugh in response to the joke, is all business. And she stays that way throughout the rest of the play, which has lofty philosophical, religious and psychological themes, and a possibly unsolvable mystery at its core. There is a little comic relief, here and there, but the tone, overall, is weighty and intense.

Livingstone is visiting the convent because Agnes, a young nun, gave birth there, and the baby died just moments later: Livingstone is the court-appointed psychiatrist sent to evaluate Agnes and, hopefully, figure out what happened. Did Agnes murder her own child? Or did someone else do it? And how did she manage to get pregnant in a place where exposure to men is extremely limited? Agnes claims to not remember anything about that night, or even becoming pregnant, or being pregnant.

This 1979 play — which ran on Broadway in 1982 and 1983, and was made into a movie in 1985 — has earned a reputation as a work with three great parts for female actors. Karen Thornton, who directs the Summit Playhouse production, writes in the program that they are “maybe some of the best ever written in the theatre.”

Jennifer Padley co-stars in “Agnes of God.”

I probably wouldn’t go that far. But certainly they are meaty parts, and this production’s three-member cast — Jennifer Padley as Livingstone, Debra Carozza as the testy but also somewhat sympathetic Mother Miriam, and Missy Renwick as Agnes — make the most of them, bringing these complex characters to vivid life.

Livingstone, an atheist, is relentless in her pursuit of the truth, though, we eventually learn, she has issues and demons of her own. Mother Miriam, trying to be protective of Agnes, fights her off.

“I don’t approve of you,” she bluntly tells Livingstone. But maybe she’s just protecting herself? Hmmm.

Agnes seems like a sweet, innocent child at times, and like a surly monster at others. But maybe she’s just been traumatized. At the very least, she seems to be living in a world of her own; Renwick has a lovely, pure singing voice that makes Agnes seem like even more of an ethereal creature.

“She’s got the voice of an angel,” Mother Miriam says, after saying she believes she’s “gifted” or “blessed.” She also suggests that Agnes’ experiences could be beyond the realm of ordinary human experience: That something akin to a miracle is going on.

Debra Carozza, left, and Missy Renwick co-star in “Agnes of God.”

“You’ll never find the answers to everything,” she tells the stubborn non-believer, Livingstone, who resorts to hypnotism, in the play’s second act, to try to uncover the truth.

Thornton’s direction — as well as the scenic design, by Gordon Weiner, and the lighting design, by Mark Reilly — keep things pretty minimal, in accordance with Pielmeier’s original recommendation that “The play is best served, I believe, by a stage free of all props, furniture and set pieces. The scenes flow one into another, without pause. Characters appear and disappear, and may even be present onstage when not in a particular scene. Because it is a play of the mind, and miracles, it is a play of light and shadows.”

Pielmeier’s “without pause” is important. As thought-provoking as this play is, and as deep as the conversations between its characters get, its fast pacing suggests powers beyond the characters’ control, pulling them in directions they may not necessarily want to go.

The Summit Playhouse will present “Agnes of God” through March 9. Visit thesummitplayhouse.org.

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