Friday, March 8, 2019

Murder or Miracle

Agnes of God at Dukesbay Theater
By Alec Clayton

from left: Maria Valenzuela, Cecilia Lewis and Laurie Sifford. Photos by Jason Ganwich of Ganwich Media.
Sister Agnes says to Dr. Martha Livingstone: “Only you think you’re lucky because you didn’t have a mother who said things to you and did things that maybe weren’t always nice, but that’s what you think, because you don’t know that my mother was a wonderful person, and even if you did know that you wouldn’t believe it because you think she was bad, don’t you.

Agnes of God is a thoughtful and emotionally draining three-person play written by John Pielmeier and inspired by an actual event. In 1977, Sister Maureen Murphy, a young nun at a convent in Brighton, New York, was put on trial for killing her baby. Sister Maureen had been found bleeding in her room, and her dead infant was found in a trash can. She denied giving birth and claimed she could not remember being pregnant. She had covered up her pregnancy by wearing the traditional nun’s habit. The father of the baby was never found. Sister Maureen was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

from left: Cecilia Lewis and Maria Valenzuela
Pielmeier read about the trial in the newspaper. In my limited research I was not able to find evidence that the play was in any way intended as a reenactment of the true events but was instead Pielmeier’s fiction inspired by the bare-bones story indicated in the opening paragraph.

The title is a pun on the Latin phrase Agnus Dei, meaning Lamb of God.

In the play, a psychiatrist, Dr. Livingstone (Maria Valenzuela) is called in to determine if Sister Agnes is sane. Valenzuela alternately narrates the events speaking directly to the audience and acts out scenes of her questioning of Agnes (Cecilia Lewis) and flashbacks from Sister Agnes and Mother Superior Miriam Ruth (Laurie Sifford).

At first, Lewis portrays Sister Agnes as shy, fearful, and incredibly naïve. She claims to have no knowledge of giving birth or of being pregnant. She even implies she does not know how pregnancy happens and says she knows nothing of any baby. Mother Miriam backs up her story, insisting that Agnes is innocent, that she has never even read a book or seen a movie, and that she knows nothing of the world outside the convent. Incidentally, the only man who had access to Sister Agnes is a priest, whom Mother Miriam insists could not possibly be the father, and there is vague reference to a field hand.

Under relentless questioning and even hypnosis, it is revealed that Agnes had the kind of relationship with her mother that could lead to psychosis. Even stigmata comes into play as Agnes’s hands spontaneously bleed. And it comes out that Agnes is not the only one with psychological issues. Mother Miriam was married with children and was a two-pack-a-day smoker before becoming a nun. Dr. Livingstone is an ex-Catholic who blames the church for the death of her sister. She is also an obsessive smoker, an indication perhaps that her supreme self-confidence and control is an act.

The only relief from the extreme psychological drama comes when Mother Miriam and Dr. Livingstone talk about smoking and speculate that the saints and the disciples, and even Mary Magdalene and Jesus might have been smokers if Lucky Strikes had been around in their time.

Being played out by only three actors, with a minimal set and practically no special lighting or sound puts a huge responsibility on the shoulders of the actors, all three of whom do a wonderful job of acting without seeming to be acting at all. Valenzuela, who has by far the most lines and is in every scene, is masterful. She depicts Dr. Livingstone as strong, determined and empathetic. Her smallest gestures, such as the way she constantly plays with the ever-present cigarette, lend verisimilitude to the character. In a slightly less imposing manner, Sifford plays Mother Miriam as equally determined. She is an obstinate warrior, but with a few chinks in her armor. I can’t say enough about Lewis’s portrayal of Sister Agnes. She rapidly and believably goes through a myriad of emotions from fear and confusion to anger.

I have read reviews of earlier productions with stained glass windows and other church trappings and dramatic lighting resulting in overblown theatrics, and I am relieved that director Nyree Martinez chose to keep this one simple. There is little on the stage other than a small table and two chairs in front of a black curtain upon which hang a crucifix and a small religious picture. The lighting and sound are kept simple, and the musical score consists of unobtrusive liturgical music and some quietly melodious singing by Sister Agnes, whom Mother Miriam says has an angelic voice.

The story verges on the unbelievable and could easily fall prey to melodrama, but Martinez and the cast and crew keep it real.

Agnes of God, 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 17, $15, Dukesbay Theater, above the Grand Theater, 508 S. 6th Ave., Tacoma

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