It’s inspiring, thought-provoking, and fully engaging as Winneshiek Playhouse opens “Agnes of God” Friday. The nation’s oldest continuous community theatre offers up another drama not to miss.
The two-act play may not have tap dances and belting songs. You might not skip out humming or doing cartwheels down the street. But you might walk away more inspired than when you first took your seat in the house and heard gentle sopranos of faith. It is written by playwright John Pielmeier. While not a household name at first glance, Pielmeier’s credits and awards affect our American experience in more ways than we realize. ‘Agnes,’ merely his second effort, was first performed as a stage reading and won 1979 Great American Play contest. Several productions later, it opened on Broadway in 1982.
And Pielmeir was just getting started. More recently his recognizable television credits include “Sybil,” screenplay of “The Capture of the Green River Killer,” and teleplay, “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.” Meantime, “Agnes of God” took on a life of its own so that community theatres like WP may take it on and enjoy the fruits of his genius.
Well-versed and theatre-savvy James Crow occupies the director’s chair for this WP production. He is no slouch since retirement from teaching theatre and becoming involved in the Northern Illinois Community Theatre Scene. On stage and off, Crow has experienced productions that have spanned stages including Pec Playhouse, Rockford Valley College where he was Managing Director for Rock Valley Starlight theatre five seasons and Highland Community College in the role of Hysterium in, “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” The above hardly scratches the surface of his accomplishments.
Moreover, Crow is a no-nonsense commanding voice that may rattle the catwalk above if he chooses. Cast members comment, however, that his direction, sometimes loud, is always positive to encourage the best performance possible. He apparently subscribes to the theory that you teach by inspiration rather than regurgitation.
There are only three actresses in this cast. Sierra Goddard, Molly Bowen, and Mary Jo Clapper take on the heavy burden of two acts and loads of script and emotion within. There’s a Mother Superior of a convent, street-wise shrink Dr. Martha Livingstone, and a young singing nun with a terrible secret. It may seem at first that the philosophies of each character are bound by a straightjacket of belief, or lack thereof, in one of the oldest controversies of religion vs. science. That’s where the powerful dialogue exchanges sharp talk between Mother and shrink that include phrases of “love and worship” against “the brain is better.” Agnes, meantime in her purity of angelic white either sings or prays. That’s only the beginning.
The firm stances of ideology between Mother and Dr. gradually become blurred almost seamlessly when each reveal to the other pearls of confession about real life; the nun who was married with children and the shrink who was guilty about her own blemished background. They continue to grow and expand into each other’s skin until Mother almost accepts a cigarette from the wayward Dr. The vices and dysfunctions come out of the woodwork, while Agnes remains innocent upstage, singing now and then.
To complicate the whole religion vs. science question is the addition of hypnotism, perhaps another sphere of belief or non-belief. Angelic Agnes must undergo the process to reveal her real secret. While you muse about that, there can even exist the male figure God hovering above as worshipped by many and scorned by others. Is He the heavenly father of an earthy secret? The layers of depth in this play unravel at each twist and turn, almost like a thriller of sorts.
Director Crow muses that there are “more questions in this play than answers.” In the end, we believe what we want to and there’s magic in that. Who doesn’t like magic? The performing arts, after all, were born directly out of the church and blossomed through the ages. The spirit is felt in church and theaters, wherever you want to be.
Sierra Goddard is well cast with the appearance of pious innocence against a sometimes huffy contrast to Mary Jo Clapper as Mother Ruth. The biggest and sometimes comical contrast lies within the role of Dr. Martha Livingstone by Molly Bowen whose chain smoking is the constant reminder of all the ills of humanity. Their exchange of dialogue happens at such a believable pace that you look eagerly for the next line, like stage life has become real life with each pause and segue.
Since there were no male roles available (except perhaps God above), Craig Downing took on the job of stage manager where he could not escape the eye-opening experience of this drama. He recently appeared in WP’s “Escanaba in Da Moonlight” and “Sorry! Wrong chimney!”
Minimalist set design, costumes, and lighting empowered the strength of the script with joint efforts of Lucy Roloff, Christopher Bowen, Jason Bowen, Molly Bowen, Jon Bridgwater, Seneca Bowen, and cast. Playbill design by Debbie Deutsch is also a poignant image of the play, maybe frame-worthy.
Be inspired and thoroughly engaged by this drama “Agnes of God,” at Winneshiek Playhouse, 228 W Clark St. The play opens Friday, March 31 and continues April 1, 7 at 7:30 p.m. and two shows April 8 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. All tickets $15. Group rates available at (815) 232-7023 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reserve at winneshiekplayers.org. Next up for Winneshiek Playhouse season is comedy/drama, “The Dixie Swim Club” in June.