Agnes of God
by John Stoltenberg
Following on Factory 449’s electrifying production two years ago of Lela & Co.—which earned Helen Hayes Awards for both its director (Rick Hammerly) and star (Felicia Curry)—the company now presents Agnes of God with not one but three phenomenal female performances.
It’s like lightning striking twice in triplicate.
The story told in John Pielmeier’s 1979 play may be familiar from the 1985 film. Set in a convent, it starts with the discovery in the room of a young nun a bloody dead baby in the wastebasket, strangled. The tremulous novice sister, Agnes (Zoe Walpole), has been charged with manslaughter. A chain-smoking, hard-driving court psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Felicia Curry), has been assigned to assess Agnes’s sanity and suss out how she got pregnant. Hovering over the evaluation and investigation is the convent’s prickly headmistress, Mother Miriam Ruth (Nanna Ingvarsson).
What’s set up as a psychiatric-criminal procedural turns quickly into a gripping disquisition on faith and doubt, the holy and the profane, the miraculous and the material, and ultimately who God is. It may be best not to know more going in (unless of course one already does) because (whatever one’s religious beliefs) this warhorse of a drama delivers one stunner revelation after another.
As directed by Rick Hammerly, the Factory 449 production is visionary. Staged in the tiny Anacostia Arts Center black box, it could not get more intimate. The audience sits on each side of a blueish triangle on the floor. Greg Stevens’s eloquent set is simplicity itself. At each vertex of the playing area is an emblem pointing to Agnes: an old wooden cross, a child’s swing, a statue of the Virgin Mary—i.e., her devout Christian faith, her lost innocence, and her conviction the conception was immaculate. As we are to learn, these points are all at issue for Martha—and Miriam would rather the nosy shrink not go there. I cannot recall a scenic design that so insightfully sets the stage for a play’s inner conflicts.
Alison Johnson costumes the cloistered sisters in sumptuous habits—Miriam, in black and white; Agnes, in gray. Completing the apt palette, Martha appears the polished professional in earth-tone skirt, leather jacket, and heels.
Agnes sings a lot during the play—and Walpole’s voice is every bit as angelic as the script says—but particular praise goes to Kenny Neal’s sound design, which literally lends Agnes’s vocals an ethereal reverb. This audible effect is echoed visibly in William D’Eugenio’s versatile lighting, which smoothly shifts scenes and at times makes the space seem sanctified.
Besides her dulcet voice, what Zoe Walpole brings to the role of Agnes is extraordinary. Trace her performance from its initial timidity through her gathering terror all the way to her excruciating howl and physicalization of pain (in a climactic scene best not divulged) and you will behold a young actor who has joined the firmament of stellar talent.
Among those top-tier talents are Factory 449 members Nanna Ingvarrson and Felicia Curry. Ingvarrson’s Mother Superior is a portrait in inner torment who is determined to present herself as beatific and benign. As Miriam’s implicatedness unfolds and her anger at Martha implodes, Ingvarrson’s unraveling is both awesome and fearsome.
Felicia Curry’s emotional range and raw authenticity would steal the show even if she were not in every scene, which she is. There might seem to be several Martha’s in the play—the complex part is written that way—but all her facets belong to the magnificently cut gem that is Curry’s searing performance.
Factory 449’s Agnes of God is a triumph of a production with a trinity of divine performances. Pray you’ll get to see it.
Running Time: One hour 40 minutes.