by Shirley Lorraine
Faith vs fantasy disputed in Agnes of God
Reality and fiction collide in John Pielmeier’s compelling drama Agnes of God now playing at the Elite Theater in Fisherman’s Wharf, Oxnard. The story centers on a young postulant, Agnes, who gives birth in a convent. She denies knowledge of having done so and of even being with child. She is accused of murder when the newborn is found discarded. A psychiatrist, Dr. Livingstone, is engaged to explore her mental state to stand trial. Conflict arises when the Mother Superior disagrees with Dr. Livingstone’s methods of inquiry. As details unfold, the layers of denial, concealment and complicity raise more new questions than answers.
The trio of actors rise to the challenging material with confidence. Agnes, played to angelic heights by Abbe Fralix, is clear of voice and portrays inner strength beyond her years. The clarity in her singing voice is amplified by the simple and effective staging. Initially it was a bit jarring to have no introductory music. However, once Fralix began to sing, the nuance became understandable.
She is well countered by Lynn Van Emmerik as Doctor Martha Livingstone, a court-appointed psychiatrist whose own internal entanglement in the complex story causes her to examine the motivation behind her personal desire to search out the truth, no matter how painful. The Doctor’s lack of religious conviction battles with the equally strong beliefs held by the Mother Superior.
Giving stoic humanity to the beleaguered Mother Miriam Ruth is Celeste Russi. Russi’s performance is simply riveting as she fulfills the roles of mother, protector, friend, confidant, savior and defendant to Agnes. She has her own reasons for discouraging Dr. Livingstone digging to the bottom of the mysterious issue. Conflict upon emotional conflict arises as the story deepens.
A dramatic staple offering for many community and regional theaters since the early 1980s, director Tom Eubanks has enthusiastically chosen to direct the play for the third time in his career. He states that it brings out new meaning and insights for him each time it is staged. This production clearly shows the depth to which Eubanks has asked his actors to reach. In response, all three deliver solid performances.
A bare-bones stage setting gives the actors and the audience alike additional opportunity to be fully immersed in the material. Light pools are used effectively for accentuating thought or time changes. Costuming is on point. Both nuns appear comfortable and at home in their habits, moving about easily in the voluminous folds of fabric.
Agnes of God does present questions relating to faith, belief and love. However, the material goes beyond religious boundaries to explore emotions and coping mechanisms common to humans of all levels.
To be sure, it is not an uplifting evening at the theater given the sordid and sobering subject matter. But, knowing that going in, it is well worth attending. Agnes is a deep work that is mesmerizing, especially in that it is so well staged and performed. The intricacies are disturbing and not appropriate for children.
Agnes of God runs through April 2. Friday & Saturday eves 8 PM, Sunday matinees 2 p.m. General admission $20. Seniors/Students/Military $17. Reservations are encouraged 483-5118. Elite Theatre Company, 2731 Victoria Avenue, Oxnard www.elitetheatre.orgATRE