Understanding symbolism not required in enjoying theologically tinged whodunit

People who look for truth look for God. They begin with nothing and look for evidence of a supernatural power. They may not find it, but they search.

People who look for facts look to man. It is often a short and easy journey. But is it enough?

It comes down to what you believe, and the play “Agnes of God” offers no answers.

Produced by Le Chat Noir, the play presents no concrete evidence of God’s presence, and raises questions about man’s influence.

The mystery takes place in a convent, where young Agnes (played by Emily Hobbs) is a nun barely out of her teens. She came to the cloth early, straight from her mother’s house, where she was kept innocent and illiterate. She exhibits a rare mystical quality reminiscent of Saint Clare of Assisi, who refused to eat while others went hungry. Agnes tells her Mother Superior that the host is enough to sustain her.

“My dear, I don’t think a communion wafer has the recommended daily allowance of anything,” Mother Superior says.

“Of God,” Agnes answers.

Despite medical evidence to the contrary, Agnes denies that she gave birth to a baby discovered dead in her room in a trashcan.

“I never saw the baby so I can’t talk about the baby because… I don’t believe in the baby,” Agnes says. “I think they made it up.”

Her Mother Superior (played by Sharon Brooks) wants to believe in an act of God. Her court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (played by Avery Villines), wants to discover what happened. The answer is never given — and for those who saw the 1985 movie with Jane Fonda, it never should have been.

Because at heart is the issue of faith. Agnes’ faith is so strong and pure that God has touched her, gifting her with both the phenomenon of stigmata and a virgin birth. Or, Agnes’ psychology is such that she engaged in intercourse, forced or consensual, with a very human man and killed the child to cover her shame.

Director Richard Justice has focused on the circular nature of the play. From playing off the idea of the trinity with his three actresses, to staging upon a set that is completely white, to even asking his actresses to walk in arcing lines rather than straight lines, Justice builds an atmosphere of ambiguity that allows theatergoers a tabula rasa upon which to ponder their positions.

“The psychiatrist says [Agnes] is not an enigma. Everything she does is explained by modern psychology, whereas the Mother Superior wants to believe in the miracle. She’s afraid that all of that will get lost,” Justice explained.

This battle between science and faith could destabilize Agnes further, while one woman looks for truth and another tries to uncover facts. The skirmishes explore Mother Superior’s bitter exit from the secular world for the comfort of the spiritual, and Livingstone’s retreat from the teachings of the Catholic Church for the teachings of higher education. Mystery, order, goodness and love — all are explored in the play’s intense intercourse-driven script.

“I do think for an audience of this show, it is about the dialogue and submersion into
the story. This is storytelling through those three actresses,” Justice said.

For Catholics, there is much more to the story than what is presented on stage. The rich symbology of the play enhances the mystery.

Agnes is named for St. Agnes, a martyr who died to protest her virginity. St. Agnes is the patron saint of virgins, of betrothed couples and of chastity. Iconographers represent her holding a lamb. The lamb is also a symbol for purity. In fact, the Latin word for lamb is “agnus.” And the character of Agnes, sheltered and ignorant, has no knowledge of sex.

But the lamb does not indicate allegiance with the Virgin Mary, the ultimate symbol of virginity. Mary is generally depicted as a ship or other vessel. And yet, the Greek word for purity is “hagne,” which echoes the sound of the name Agnes. And thus, the focus returns to the possibility of Agnes’ virginity.

The Mother Superior is not an innocent. She is merely a believer. Having lived a secular life, Mother Superior is not uninitiated into the realm of science. But she is unimpressed with it.

“She thinks, as a society, we’ve evolved too far,” Justice explained. Research into genetics and psychology have narrowed the definition of what is considered normal, and increased what is considered treatable. By medicating visionaries, she might argue, it is precisely science that is destroying God. Dr. Livingstone argues that science is ridding the world of superstitious ignorance.

“Who has the power during these conversations? Is it the psychiatrist or is it Mother Superior? And at times, Agnes takes the power from all of them,” Justice said.

But Agnes is not a vessel containing the answer to the riddle. Mother Superior explains why: “You’ll never find the answers to everything,” she says. “One and one is two, yes, but that leads to four and then to eight and soon to infinity.”

The brightest spot on the stage when this play is performed anywhere is the searing dialogue. Not content with the advance and retreat of argument, it also contains a wit that is never far away — including an exchange about the tobacco preferences of the saints that will resonate with Catholic viewers.

Obviously, the play was written before the advent of DNA profiling — it won the 1979 Great American Play Contest. But it remains a suspenseful exploration of the human search for answers in the universe, a topic relevant today when religion permeates global politics.

Note: This is a revival of sorts for this production because these three women in 2003 swept the awards at the Georgia Theater Conference with the Augusta Players, of which Justice was the artistic director. Villines won best actress and Brooks and Hobbs tied each other for best supporting actress. Justice won best director and the production won best show. Villines won best actress again at the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and Hobbs was recognized with a special acting award.

“Agnes of God”
Le Chat Noir
Oct. 19-20, and 25-27


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