SALT LAKE CITY — In 1977, a nun in upstate New York gave birth to a child which was found asphyxiated in a waste basket in her room. The voluminous nun’s habit made it easy for her to hide her pregnancy, and afterward she claimed not to remember the father or even the pregnancy. Following a psychological evaluation, this sister was acquitted on the grounds of insanity. Agnes of God is playwright John Pielmeier’s interpretation of that nun’s story.
The play began with three women singing in Latin. They stood several feet apart from each other, and the light fell only on them. They finished their song, the lights went out, and a mood of spiritual contemplation and isolation was set. When the lights (designed by Alex Wannberg, Natalie Colony, and Blake Delwische) came on again, the scene opened on the office of Dr. Martha Livingston (played by Sahara Hayes), a psychiatrist tasked to assess the sanity of Sister Agnes as a part of her trial for the murder of her newborn child.
Before her first appointment with Agnes, however, Dr. Livingston receives a visit from the convent’s mother superior, Mother Miriam Ruth (played by Carlie Young). When Mother Miriam Ruth encourages Dr. Livingston to handle the matter quickly because Agnes is fragile, the psychiatrist quickly becomes defensive about the nun’s seeming distrust of medicine and science. Agnes’s (Ashley Horrocks) arrival at Dr. Livingston’s office is preceded by her lovely singing voice. Mother Miriam Ruth believes Agnes’s beautiful singing voice is a sign that she has been touched by God, evidence that perhaps her child was a virgin birth.
The personal and philosophical conflict between the psychiatrist and the mother superior provide a tablet for exploring the relationship between scientific phenomena and miracles, faith and doubt, and the gray area that separates them. Their dispute centers on the well-being of the childish Agnes whether searching for “truth” controverts the possibility of miracles.
The play includes only these three characters and demands depth and versatility of each of them. As Dr. Livingston, Hayes beautifully portrayed the complexity of a person’s relationship with her childhood faith and of the balance between a psychiatrist’s professional and personal lives. Young’s portrayal of Mother Miriam Ruth was breathtaking. She managed to make her character’s multidimensionality both surprising and believable so that I was forced to constantly question my assumptions about the mother superior. Horrocks filled the role of Agnes with all the innocence and complexity that the character required. Horrocks’s performance felt so real that I found myself sympathizing with both Dr. Livingston and Mother Miriam Ruth in their desire to help and protect her.
Costumes (designed by Mandi Titcomb) fit the characters: professional slacks, blouse, and heels for Dr. Livingston, a nun’s habit for Mother Miriam Ruth, and loose dresses that accentuated the childish nature of Agnes. The scene never changed from Dr. Livingston’s office, and the props (Allisyn Thompson) there were both unassuming and professional in ways that fit the character of the psychiatrist.
The title of Agnes of God is a play on a Latin phrase, Agnus Dei, which means “Lamb of God.” Director Allison Dayne combined a simple set and staging with three strong performances to provide audiences a coherent exploration of what it means to be touched by God. The presentation was thought-provoking and respectful to differing viewpoints, giving audiences the liberty to join the characters in questioning their own assumptions about truth and belief.