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Forest Moon Theater’s Deeply Engaging Agnes of God Moves to Sonorous Road on Feb. 23-26

Jill Cromwell (left) and Benji Jones star as Agnes and Dr. Livingston (photo by David Leone)

Jill Cromwell (left) and Benji Jones star as Agnes and Dr. Livingston (photo by David Leone)

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

The name of John Pielmeier’s Tony Award®-winning play, Agnes of God is a cute play on words that links two otherwise unrelated facts:

  1. The Liturgy of Anglican, Lutheran, and Catholic churches includes the above chant, which is called the “Agnes Dei,” or “Lamb of God.” It is sung during the Fractio panis or Breaking of the bread during Holy Communion (Eucharist). John the Baptist had coined the term when he said, referring to Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
  2. “In April 1976, the affluent Rochester, NY suburb of Brighton was shocked to learn that a young nun at the Sisters of St. Joseph convent had been accused of murdering her newborn son. Police found Sister Maureen lying bloodstained on her bedroom floor in critical condition from shock. Her baby had been thrust into a wastebasket hidden behind a bookcase,” according to People magazine’s report. This event has been cited as the source of Pielmeier’s inspiration. The name of the school at which Sister Maureen had been a Montessori teacher was St. Agnes.

Under Bob Baird direction, Forest Moon Theater’s production of Agnes of God is nothing short of spectacular. Upon entering the theater, we were greeted with the subdued sounds of Gregorian(-sounding) Chants (presumably the chanting of nuns), which served to set the mood. As the house lights dimmed, the recorded chants faded and were replaced by the sound of church bells and the live singing of a single, beautiful feminine voice emanating from backstage.

The action of the play begins with a monologue delivered by psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone (played by Benji Taylor). It includes an anecdote in which she initiates the subject of searching for a happy ending, telling us that “how thoroughly you look” for it will depend on “how deeply you need [the happy ending].” Livingstone is bathed in a pool of light on an otherwise dark stage as she speaks to us, thereby creating the intimacy of a confidential, one-on-one chat with each audience member. The show makes use of this device a number of times, thereby preserving the feeling that we are being kept in Livingstone’s deepest confidence.

In the scene that follows the opening monologue, Mother Miriam Ruth (Gilly Conklin) meets with Livingstone to begin discussions that will decide the fate of Sister Agnes (Jill Cromwell). (Watch for a classic joke in Mother Miriam’s initial greeting.) Livingstone has been sent by the court to examine Agnes, to decide if she is competent to stand trial and, more importantly, what she should be charged with. The two engage in a verbal tug-of-war. Agnes’ entry will follow. (Interesting side-note: Miriam asks Livingstone to refrain from smoking. Livingstone acknowledges the request but continues to smoke, practically nonstop!)

We soon learn that Agnes had been found one night, unconscious and bleeding, obviously having given birth to a baby who had been found dead in a wastepaper basket, strangled with its own umbilical chord. We also learn that nobody (including, it would seem, Agnes herself) had been aware of the pregnancy. And we further learn that Agnes has no memory of the birth or even of the conception.

Mother Miriam refers to Agnes as “special” and as “an innocent.” Definitely protective of Agnes, she protests: “I don’t want [Agnes’] mind cut open.”

What follows is an intense drama that includes Agnes’ sessions with Livingstone (which sometimes include hypnosis), further meetings between Mother Miriam and Livingstone (some of which include Agnes), flashbacks involving Agnes and Miriam, and Livingstone’s addresses to the audience.

Jill Cromwell (left) and Gilly Conklin star as Agnes and Mother Miriam (photo by David Leone)

Jill Cromwell (left) and Gilly Conklin star as Agnes and Mother Miriam (photo by David Leone)

All three of the women have experienced personal loss and undergone crises-of-faith. Indeed, their discussions touch on such subjects as faith versus science, the power of the human mind, the nature of miracles, questions of right and wrong, and the existence of such things as apparitions, disembodied voices, stigmata, and guardian angels. Other subjects touched upon include personal responsibility, child abuse, smoking (and quitting), and (wait for it …) what brands of cigarettes the biblical Saint Peter and Mary Magdalene would have smoked!

In the process, we are taken on a roller-coaster ride of emotions.

We could not have asked for better casting! Benji Jones is incredible as Dr. Martha Livingstone. During the soliloquies, she had us eating out of the palm of her hand. We found ourselves feeling with her as well as feeling for her.

For Livingstone, this is every bit as much a spiritual journey into her own past (and future) as it is an inquiry into Agnes’ situation. Watch closely as Jones navigates her way through Livingstone’s transformations, and these transformations are plentiful and thorough.

Benji Jones is onstage throughout the play, engaged, nonstop, in dialogue or monologue, except for three brief flashbacks involving Agnes and Miriam. And even during those respites, Jones keeps her character engaged, registering internal reactions to the information conveyed.

Gilly Conklin, who plays Mother Miriam Ruth, faces the challenge of delivering a full-scale performance, using only her voice, her face, and her hands. (Incidental movement and body language were obscured by the nun’s habit that she wears.) Conklin easily meets and surpasses this obstacle. There is never any doubt about the Miriam’s position on any topic of discussion. The character is passionate about her responsibilities in general and about Agnes in particular. Conklin shows us a character who is a feisty, capable antagonist for Livingstone. Conklin also delivers Miriam’s humorous lines well. The line “I can smell an ex-Catholic a mile away” provoked one of the biggest outbursts of laughter.

Jill Cromwell delivers a thoroughly believable mousy and shy Agnes, who is modest and self-conscious. Agnes knows that she has a gift for singing, but she credits “someone else” and does not want to talk about it. It is shocking to the point of being disturbing when Agnes shifts into another “gear” later on, but Cromwell keeps it believable. Is this a case of multiple personality disorder? Or is there something supernatural in the works here?

To Cromwell’s credit, there is no point at which we doubt any of the conflicting information we get from Agnes. And, by the way, Cromwell’s voice measures up to Miriam’s observation that Agnes has “the voice of an angel.”

The play was first performed in 1979, and it made its Broadway debut in 1982. In 1985, a film adaptation was made, starring Anne Bancroft as Mother Miriam Ruth, Jane Fonda as Dr. Martha Livingstone, and Meg Tilly as Sister Agnes Devereaux.

We recommend this show not only for its intensity and its probing into “the human condition,” but also for the moments of tenderness, warmth, and humor. CAUTION: There are small amounts of adult situations and language.

Forest Moon Theater's production of Agnes of God, directed by Bob Baird, stars (from left) Benji Jones as Dr. Livingston, Jill Cromwell as Agnes, and Gilly Conklin as Mother Miriam (photo by David Leone)

Forest Moon Theater’s production of Agnes of God, directed by Bob Baird, stars (from left) Benji Jones as Dr. Livingston, Jill Cromwell as Agnes, and Gilly Conklin as Mother Miriam (photo by David Leone)

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 16th Raleigh, NC Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/02/three-fine-actresses-resurrect-john-pielmeiers-agnes-of-god-for-the-forest-moon-theater/; and Feb. 12th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Alan R. Hall: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8352. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 16th Triangle Review review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2017/02/three-fine-actresses-resurrect-john-pielmeiers-agnes-of-god-for-the-forest-moon-theater/.)

The Forest Moon Theater presents AGNES OF GOD at 8 p.m. Feb. 23-25 and 3 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Sonorous Road Theatre, 209 Oberlin Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina 27605.

TICKETS: $15 in advance ($13 students 18 and under and seniors 65+) and $18 day of show ($16 students 18 and under and seniors 65+).

BOX OFFICE: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2716267.

INFORMATION: 919-435-2001 or office@forestmoontheater.org.

SHOW: http://www.forestmoontheater.org/agnes-of-god-show-information/ and https://www.facebook.com/events/405297703145692/.

2016-17 SEASON: http://www.forestmoontheater.org/current-season/.

PRESENTER: http://www.forestmoontheater.org/, https://www.facebook.com/forestmoontheater, https://twitter.com/FMTheater, and https://www.youtube.com/user/ForestMoonTheater?feature=mhee.

VENUES: https://www.sonorousroadtheatre.com/.

DIRECTIONS: https://www.sonorousroadtheatre.com/location-hours).

OTHER LINKS:

Agnes of God (1982 Broadway mystery): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/2267/agnes-of-god (Samuel French, Inc.), http://johnpielmeier.com/theater/plays/agnes-of-god/ (John Pielmeier: Writing and Acting for the Stage and Screen), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/agnes-of-god-1421 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agnes_of_God (Wikipedia).

The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).

John Pielmeier (Altoona, PA-born playwright and screenwriter): http://johnpielmeier.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/john-pielmeier-6888 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0682196/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Pielmeier (Wikipedia).

Bob Baird (Raleigh, NC director and scenic designer): https://www.facebook.com/robert.c.baird (Facebook page).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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