What is the truth?
By definition, the truth is a group of facts that define an event.
But what if our minds store and process these facts in a faulty way? What if the truth in one’s mind doesn’t match what is actually true in reality?
Things like trauma can make a person’s mind crack, break, or even shatter.
When that happens, some turn to religion and its principles of faith without the need for real world proof.
Others turn to social sciences, embracing the principles of psychology to diagnose and treat the breaks in the psyche.
TWO KINDS OF BELIEF
Agnes of God by John Pielmeier is a three-person drama that explores and wrestles with these elements – exploring the crossroads of the Catholic faith and modern psychiatry. It is now playing at Chicago’s Redtwist Theatre through July 9th.
Redtwist Theatre is an important voice in Chicago’s storefront theater scene and the city’s overall grand entertainment community. If you are a fan of powerful theater that makes you think, feel, hope, and cry and award-worthy acting, direction, and production value, then make sure to put Redtwist’s Agnes of God on your dance card. This Jeff Recommended dynamic drama is one that you really should experience in all its glory and with all its heartbreak.
Inspired by a real situation that playwright Pielmeier read about in the news, Agnes of God is an intense and thought-provoking account of a young novice nun who we learn has hidden a pregnancy until giving birth, after which the baby is found dead in a waste basket.
Sister Agnes has no recollection of being pregnant or doing anything that could have resulted in pregnancy. She doesn’t remember a baby at all, much less how it got in her room or how it died.
A TOTAL INNOCENT
Just 21 years old, Sister Agnes is described by the Mother Superior of her convent as a total innocent. Raised by an alcoholic mother most likely suffering from mental illness, Agnes was physically, mentally, and emotionally abused. She wasn’t allowed to go to school, read books, watch television, or interact with the outside world.
When her mother died when Agnes was 17, she was entrusted to a convent. There she became a novice nun and continued her innocence under the protection of Mother Miriam Ruth. She has almost no knowledge of society outside of the convent.
After the discovery of the dead baby, Agnes is referred for psychological evaluation to see if she is fit to stand trial. Dr. Martha Livingstone is faced with the task of deciding if Agnes was aware of her actions and should face a prison sentence, or if she is mentally ill and should be referred to a psychiatric institution.
Standing in the way of Dr. Livingstone reaching a recommendation for the court is the attachment she builds for Agnes and the almost delusional thinking of the Mother Superior that there might be an option where Sister Agnes faces neither jail nor institutionalization.
A WINNER ON BROADWAY
After initial stagings at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut and the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Agnes of God premiered on Broadway in 1982. Amanda Plummer won a Tony Award for her supporting performance as Sister Agnes, while Geraldine Page was nominated for the Best Actress Award for her role as the Mother Superior.
The play was then adapted into a movie directed by Norman Jewison and starring Meg Tilly, Anne Bancroft, and Jane Fonda. Tilly was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Supporting Actress category as the Sister Agnes, while Bancroft was nominated in the Lead Actress division as the Mother Superior.
To do the script complete justice, the play requires a strong director complimented by a skilled production staff and three powerhouse actresses.
As a director, Clare Brennan has done an incredible job in her creation of Agnes of God in the confines of the Redtwist performance space. The concepts are clear and exceptionally brought to life. Dramaturg Jesse Boyle has clearly done their homework. The influences of assistant director Hannah Blau, stage manager Taylor Stageberg, and production assistant Rinska Carrasco-Prestinary are also notable. And every one of Brennan’s directorial instincts seems deliciously on point.
The blocking is wonderful. The character development is spot on. The set by Rose Johnson is minimalist but effective and is conceptionally perfect. The Lights by Sam Anderson accomplish giant things with minimal equipment. Properties are well done by Evy Burch – with hero level applause for the incredibly realistic prop cigarettes.
Overall technical direction by Redtwist’s resident artistic director Dusty Brown is as good as could ever be wished for in a storefront theater. Fight and intimacy choreographer Courtney Abbott also does a nice job.
GREATNESS WITH MODESTY
One area that must be spotlighted in Redtwist’s all around great Agnes of God is the costumes by Anna Bodell. There are only a few outfits for these characters to wear, but they are important ones. The details by Bodell are painstakingly correct. She has achieved greatness with modesty.
From the moment the play begins, Jacqueline Grandt mesmerizes the audience as Dr. Livingstone. The three actresses in the play are inches from the audience. At times Grandt’s Livingstone is in the moment of a reenactment, at other times she talks directly to the audience as if giving a professional account of a tragic case. Grandt masterfully handles all of it. She also deftly navigates all the other ups and downs, twists and turns, and ins and outs as the pilot guiding the other characters and the audience down a whitewater river of emotions.
Grandt is a five-time Jeff Award nominee as a performer, and she deserves another nomination for this performance. She truly commands the stage. I never doubted her for a second. Not when she was seated next to me looking me in the eye, talking directly to me like a colleague, and not when she was crying real tears in the midst of crisis at the emotional peak of the show.
Soleil Pérez made her Redtwist debut in the company’s very well produced production of Babel. She shined in that play and seeing her return in this powerful drama is a welcome sight.
Pérez exquisitely captures the total wide-eyed innocence that the character requires when first introduced. Yet the depths of emotion that she is able to go to later in the play are simply awe inspiring. For an actress to go to that emotional place every performance night is an astounding achievement. If I had to go to that emotional place every day, night after night for performance after performance, I would probably require therapy.
CHARACTERS WITH MANY LEVELS
The third character in the drama is that of the Mother Superior, played by Debra Rodkin. This is a character that has earned many actresses a lot of praise because it is meaty and ripe for interpretation.
The Mother Superior is crafty. At points she has Sister Agnes’ best interests at heart. At other times, she is only fooling herself that she is focused on what’s best for Sister Agnes. Sometimes she is the picture of calm and collectedness. This makes her loss of control at other times all the more biting.
Rodkin is a very experienced actress who I have enjoyed in comedic roles such as in It Runs in the Family at Citadel Theatre in Lake Forest. A Redtwist company member, as Mother Superior Rodkin explores both the comedy and the dramatic possibilities of the character. She takes chances and that is always to be commended.
Understudies for the three roles are Debbie Banos, Hannah McCauley, and Maren Rosenberg.
WORTHY OF EMBRACE
With Agnes of God under the stunning direction of Clare Brennan, Redtwist Theatre once again proves its standing as a shining light in Chicago theater. This hard-hitting drama features incredibly powerful, award-worthy performances and a production design that shouldn’t be possible on this kind of budget.
In an effort to make theater accessible to everyone, Redtwist offers Pay What You Can admission every Friday for Agnes of God. The play runs through July 9th, with performances at 7:30 PM on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 3:30 PM on Sundays.
Every seat in the house for this production is a good one, it’s just a shame there are not more seats to sell, because this is a Jeff Recommended production that all of Chicago should be embracing. Every night should be sold out – so buy your tickets and make that happen.
Photos by Tom McGrath
Peace. Love. Trust.
Rikki Lee Travolta
For more reviews visit: Theatre in Chicago – your source for What’s on Stage in the Chicago Area
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