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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the January 14, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `Agnes of God’

"Agnes of God" was a stunner and a success when it opened on Broadway in 1982. The stars – Elizabeth Ashley, Geraldine Page, and Amanda Plummer – were duly lauded, with Plummer winning a Tony for her leading role. John Pielmeier’s play about a young nun accused of murdering her newborn baby and the psychological inquiry that followed was subsequently made into a film in 1985 with Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilley. This emotionally turbulent and intellectually unsettling drama has endured as an appealing showcase for a trio of good actors.

The George Street Playhouse production, under the firm direction of Ted Sod, shows a thoroughly professional and engrossing commitment to both the puzzlements of the play and to a first-rate cast of three assigned to probe them. If there is a predominant mystery behind the lurid murder, it is how an apparent state of transcendent spirituality can be related to brutal reality.

Suzzanne Douglas, whose dramatic range has been tested at this theater as singing legend Billie Holiday and as the cancer-stricken Vivian Bearing in "Wit," is once again first rate and splendidly neurotic as Dr. Martha Livingstone, the court-appointed psychiatrist who has been assigned to assess the sanity of Sister Agnes. Livingston’s most interesting trait, and one that Douglas delivers with clarity, is the underlying bitterness that propels the doctor’s conflicted motives. The assessment is given an even more provocative dimension when the convent’s Mother Superior makes a case for Agnes as a holy innocent, someone whose spirituality exists outside conventional investigation.

Broadway veteran Laurie Kennedy, whose last appearance at George Street was in Anne Meara’s "After Play," is excellent as Mother Miriam Ruth, whose own spiritual beliefs are revealed to be in a constant state of jeopardy, but who is also conspicuously grounded in earthiness and sagacity. Kennedy appears totally immersed within this complex character who valiantly endeavors to keep the faith in her defensive arguments with Dr. Livingston, a lapsed Catholic with an addiction to cigarettes. (Despite the fact that the show uses herbal cigarettes, the smoke created is an irritant).

An impressive performance comes from the up-and-coming Maria Dizzia, a Cranford, New Jersey, resident, who is both touching and elusive in the title role. She gives just the right tone of unconventional piety to her performance: one that makes the quarrels about her state of mind all the more complex and tantalizing.

Notwithstanding the eternal conflicts of faith and science, logic and divinity, there may be some who may choose to question the way the church might now respond to the situation and the way a psychological inquiry would be conducted today. The play, nevertheless, presents its case with efficient grace and proper regard for good dramaturgy. The fact that Agnes has no memory of her pregnancy, the delivery, nor of the baby’s death, and that she may be, in Livingston’s opinion, psychologically impaired since childhood, only serves to strengthen the Mother Superior needs to believe in the essentially fragile Agnes as an exalted being.

Perhaps just as interesting is how the Mother Superior cuts through Dr. Livingston’s own scarred emotions and deep-seated resentment toward the church. A little gloomy perhaps, but it makes for some meaty and meaningful talk. To be sure, this probe into a world of holy madness is not the cheeriest of entertainment, but it will hold your attention.

Designer Ted Simpson uses a stark black-and-white motif for the essentially spare, tiered convent setting (enhanced by Joe Saint’s lighting) with cathedral-styled windows and arched doorways. For those who remember being given a good scare by Pielmeier’s "Voices in the Dark" which premiered at GSP a few seasons back, "Agnes of God" shows off this fine playwright at his melodramatic best.

Agnes of God, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. John Pielmeier’s drama about a young nun charged with murder. $28 to $52. To February 1.


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