A very young nun gives birth alone in her room at the convent; the baby’s corpse is discovered in a wastebasket. The questions that follow seem unanswerable. Who impregnated Agnes? Was the child stillborn, or was it killed on delivery — and if the latter, was Agnes the killer? In John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God, showing at Vintage Theatre, two strong women struggle over the puzzle, battling each other, each fascinated by Agnes and claiming a particular connection to her. Mother Miriam Ruth wants to protect her vulnerable protégé; she’s enchanted by Agnes’s persistent singing, finds something saintly in the girl, and half-wonders about the possibility of a miraculous explanation for the birth. Dr. Livingstone has been tasked by a court to examine Agnes and decide whether she should be charged with murder or classified as insane. She purports to be scientific and impartial in her analysis, but it turns out she’s far from objective: Raised in a Catholic household, Dr. Livingstone hates Catholicism.
Pielmeier’s script, first staged in 1979, is an extended discussion of these charged ideas. There’s not a huge amount of action, and Dr. Livingstone carries much of the narrative through between-scene monologues. But the dialogue is passionate, intelligent and always absorbing. It works in the interstices between desire and reality, evoking the near-universal human longing for some kind of transcendence. We know Agnes couldn’t possibly have had a virgin birth — but what if, just if, she had? And then there’s the mystery of Agnes’s stigmata. So we understand Mother Miriam Ruth’s yearning for the divine, just as we do Dr. Livingstone’s reliance on fact. But then there’s the psychiatrist’s apparently inexplicable aggression and hostility, and the question of whether she is really the right person to evaluate Agnes.
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The production is bookended by two terrific performances. As Dr. Livingstone, Haley Johnson is on stage throughout, and most of the dialogue is hers; her deep and moving emotional commitment to the role never falters. Emma Messenger’s Mother Miriam Ruth is shadowed and complex; we see her warm concern for Agnes and also the willful blindness created by her powerful and overwhelming belief. The role of Agnes is the most difficult, requiring an actor able to communicate a genuinely otherworldly quality while still seeming rooted in a darkly troubled world. Mariel Goffredi may not yet have the necessary experience to communicate this almost shape-shifting persona. She carries the action well and has some touching moments, but there’s little sense of mystery in the performance.
Director Craig A. Bond has taken an interesting script and created a solidly worthwhile production. But unfortunately, the tech in Vintage’s black-box theater is rudimentary. Admittedly, it’s a difficult space: a long, shallow room with long rows of chairs for the audience, and a stage that runs the length of that room and has almost no depth. The stage must be hard to design for and equally hard to act on. Even so, the set for Agnes is misconceived — gauzy material circling shapeless white objects — and the costumes look cheap and inauthentic. I imagine that Vintage, like most local companies, works on a shoestring. But this is an ambitious company that has staged some interesting plays in a fine permanent home and is attracting talent at the level of Johnson and Messenger; it seems clear this is where the directors need to turn their attention now.
Agnes of God, presented by Vintage Theatre through July 8, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.com.