ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The threat of another winter storm may have kept some away from Friday’s opening-night performance of “Agnes of God” at the Desert Rose Playhouse, but this strong production deserves a larger audience. John Pielmeier’s play opened on Broadway in 1982 and became a successful film.
The sensational back-story is tabloid material. Mother Superior Miriam Ruth discovers Sister Agnes bloody and unconscious outside her convent room. Inside she discovers a newborn baby—asphyxiated with its umbilical cord—in a wastepaper basket. Agnes denies any knowledge of the conception, birth, or death of the child. Charged with manslaughter, Agnes is sent to a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingston, for pretrial evaluation. The psychiatrist and the mother superior battle for the soul of the deeply troubled nun. Pielmeier’s drama is both provocative and melodramatic. Dr. Livingston, a bitter lapsed Catholic, finds Agnes an anodyne for her younger sister’s death in a convent and seeks rational explanations for what has happened. She wants to cure Agnes and confirm the power of science. Mother Miriam finds Agnes “different, special, blessed with the voice of an angel” and believes in the possibility of the miraculous in the disturbing events. She wants to protect Agnes and confirm the power of faith. At the center of this battle, Agnes becomes an obsession for both women. We learn of her abuse at the hands of her mother at whose death she entered the convent. And under hypnosis Agnes reenacts her story. The playwright stacks the dramatic deck by creating parallels between the characters, and he struggles at times to balance the spiritual and the rational. Still, the play raises essential questions about the efficacy of belief systems.
Director Sheila Freed opts for a bare stage with two chairs and an ashtray (even that is gone in Act 2); Amanda Tatum’s lighting design provides focus. The acting carries the play. Georgia Athearn is the chain-smoking psychiatrist who reveals other emotional chains as well. Athearn has effective transitions from dialogue to monologue. As Mother Miriam, Ninette S. Mordaunt gives an inspired performance. She adds dimension to her character throughout the play, and her scenes with Athearn crackle. Despite a runny nose, Jenny Miller is fine as Agnes, conveying otherworldliness and innocence as well as harrowing reality and pain.
The Desert Rose can be proud of “Agnes of God.”
If You Go
WHAT: “Agnes of God” by John Pielmeier
WHEN: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 4 p.m. through February 4
WHERE: The Desert Rose Playhouse, 6921-E Montgomery NE
HOW MUCH: $10. Call 881-0503 for ticket information