As a lovely female voice sings in the background, a professionally dressed woman walks to the front of the stage and begins a monologue.
She likes to believe that every story has a happy ending, she tells us. She wants to believe in “alternate reals.” As a child, she saw Greta Garbo’s film Camille several times, and always dreamed that, hidden in a vault somewhere in Hollywood, there’s a film reel with an ending in which Garbo doesn’t die of consumption.
As Dr. Martha Livingstone (Marsha Waterbury) talks, a woman in a nun’s habit, who we later learn is the Mother Superior (Laura Julian), approaches and interrupts. The two begin a discussion—and we soon find out what’s going on.
The details are horrific: Several months before, a young nun, Agnes (Britt Adams), was found unconscious in her room. She’d just given birth—and her child was found dead in a trash can, with its umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. Blood was everywhere.
The young nun is being charged with manslaughter, and she claims to have no recollection of the birth (nor, for that matter, the conception). It’s Dr. Livingstone’s job to evaluate Sister Agnes—often under the watchful eye of Mother Superior, Agnes’ staunch defender.
John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God is the second and final production in Coyote StageWorks’ current season. After the criminally underattended Friday-night show, founding artistic director Chuck Yates told a small group of people that he saw the play back in the early 1980s, when it was a Tony Award-winning Broadway production. (In 1985, it was made into a film starring Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly, which received decidedly mixed reviews.) It left a strong impression on him, he said—and he’s always wondered why it hasn’t received a significant revival.
After seeing Coyote StageWorks’ fantastic production, I understand what Yates is talking about. Agnes of God is a powerful, disturbing work about the power of faith, and the gray areas that often emerge when trying to determine “right” and “wrong.”
Scenic designer Josh Clabaugh’s set on the Annenberg Theater stage when the play starts is simple. It primarily consists of an office chair, a wooden chair, and a cigarette-laden ashtray on a stand. Off to the side is a see-through standing screen, and sheer white fabric hangs, curtain-like, from ceiling in several spots. However, that’s all the decoration this show needs: It’s all about the performances of the three women who perform in Agnes of God—and director Don Amendolia did a fantastic job of casting.
Britt Adams plays Agnes for much of the show as a one-note character. She’s naïve, untrusting and easily frightened, yet surprisingly sweet; she’s always singing. However, as Dr. Livingstone begins to earn Agnes’ trust and unravel all that’s happened to this 21-year-old, Adams begins to add layers to Agnes—especially in a shocking scene during which Dr. Livingstone finally gets Agnes to talk about what happened in her room on that fateful night. It’s a fine performance.
Martha Waterbury is excellent as Dr. Livingstone. We learn early on that Dr. Livingstone passionately dislikes nuns, because her sister became a nun and died at a young age due to a neglectful mother superior. It’s no surprise that she initially wants little to do with Agnes’ Mother Superior—but it is something of a surprise when she begins warming up to Agnes so quickly.
(An aside: While I’d never seen Agnes of God before, I saw the show with a friend who watched the early ’80s Broadway production. He mentioned that he was surprised at how quickly Waterbury’s Dr. Livingstone began showing her softer, more sympathetic side; he felt this performance choice made the character’s eventual emotional crisis less powerful than what was depicted in the Broadway version. So, take that for what it’s worth.)
However, it’s Laura Julian who deliver’s the show’s top performance. Her Mother Superior is fiercely protective of Agnes, calling her special—citing her amazing singing voice as proof—and an innocent. She is mistrustful of Dr. Livingstone, in part because she fears what the doctor will determine: If Agnes is sane, she’ll go to prison for manslaughter, and if she’s insane, she’ll go to an institution; Mother Superior believes Agnes will not survive in either case. While Mother Superior doesn’t trust Dr. Livingstone, she’s surprisingly understanding of her: These two strong women have a lot in common, including—later in the play—a love of Anges. Some of the play’s best moments come when Dr. Livingstone temporarily suspends her dislike of nuns (and, therefore, Mother Superior), and Mother Superior puts aside her mistrust of Dr. Livingstone, and the women find common ground—with even a shared laugh or two. Julian is masterful as holes begin to develop in Mother Superior’s story, and her emotions begin to crack just a little.
A warning: This show is not a feel-good piece at all. In fact, it is dark and disturbing. At the end, you’ll find yourself relating to Dr. Livingstone’s sentiments expressed at the beginning: You’ll wish the show had an alternate happy ending.
Alas, it does not. At least you’ll leave the theater knowing you’ve just seen a fantastically performed piece of theater.
Coyote StageWorks’ Agnes of God is performed at 2 p.m., Sunday, April 24; 7:30 p.m., Friday, April 29; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 30; and 2 p.m., Sunday, May 1, at the Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Drive, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $45 to $60, and the show runs about two hours with one 10-minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-325-4490, or visit annenbergtheater.org.