As the lights in the Hill Theater dim, a candle materializes in the center of the dark stage, and its flame casts a faint, eerie light on the two women standing on either side of it. A voice rings out from these flickering silhouettes, its angelic timbre carrying a haunting sadness that sets the dark and mysterious tone of Agnes of God.
The production, which brought together complicated themes of faith, reality, psychology and abuse, premiered on March 29 as the senior thesis of actors Meredith Awalt ’19 and Arianna Marino ’19, along with director Kit Fluharty ’19.
The play, written by John Pielmeier, follows Dr. Martha Livingston (Marino), a psychiatrist who has been assigned to the court case of a young nun named Agnes (played by Helen Carter ’20) who is facing accusations of the infanticide of her own child. As Livingston works to assess Agnes’s mental stability, developing a desire to discover the truth of the infant’s mysterious conception and death in the process, she clashes with Miriam (Awalt), the Mother Superior who seems intent on keeping Livingston in the dark about certain details of this peculiar night.
“It’s such a complicated and interesting story that Pielmeier has created. We liked how it allowed us to be more open with the direction and the acting in terms of not necessarily going with perfectly naturalistic style all the time,” Fluharty said. “The play calls for miracles to happen onstage and we were attracted to the idea of trying to make that happen.”
The production rejected strict realism in favor of a more imaginative and abstract quality. Much of this comes from the script’s nonlinear approach to time: The action slides seamlessly back and forth between flashbacks and Livingston’s fourth-wall-breaking narration.
The play’s dreamlike quality allowed for the production’s design elements to take on a life of their own. Toward the end of the play, for example, the lighting, designed by Jeffrey Searls ’19 and Jane Lindstrom ’21, seemed to breathe along with the characters, as it rose and fell in a natural, human rhythm. In other moments, the lighting gave life to shadows that cast massive silhouettes of the actors on the wall behind them.
“There’s a difference between theatrical lighting and dance lighting in that a lot of the time dance lighting doesn’t concentrate as much on faces, but more on the shapes of bodies,” Fluharty explained. “I wanted [Searls] to play with almost doing dance lighting and allowing [the actors] to be sort of mysterious in their faces.”
The set, designed by Katie Stevenson ’21 and James DiSandro ’22, furthered the sense of a world existing outside of the normal confines of time and reality. The set swirled a hedge of precariously balanced furniture around the actors. At different moments, the actors would untangle pieces of furniture from this nest and arrange them to represent different rooms and spaces.
Despite the reality-resistant quality of the production’s design, the play’s performances were deeply human and moving. Carter’s portrayal of Agnes was one of complexity, her pure and faithful essence fascinatingly coexisting with a depth of inner torment. Carter’s performance was well-balanced by Awalt’s unyielding and secretive portrayal of Mother Miriam. Marino’s Livingston presented a desire for rationality and reason that provided the audience with a welcome base in a play where the lines of truth and logic become increasingly blurry.
The play ended on a quiet, somber note. The candle that was lit in the first scene suddenly blew out, leaving Marino seemingly alone on stage as she delivered her final lines to an audience that would be grappling with the play’s conclusion for some time to come.