This weekend I got to see John Pielmeier’s Agnes of God at Vancouver’s PAL Studio Theatre, produced by Alchemy Theatre. It is a tough play, examining faith, the at-times oppressive nature of the Catholic Church, abuse, and trauma.
The play centres on three women: Dr. Martha Livingstone, a court-appointed psychiatrist with a history of antipathy toward the Church; Agnes, a young nun accused of murdering her newborn child; and Mother Superior Miriam Ruth, whose motivations are unclear in trying to mediate the relationship between Agnes and Livingstone.
Although touted as a timeless story, it’s very much a story of the time in which it was written. From the combative and, at times, horrifying, tactics Dr. Livingstone uses on her young patient to get to the truth, to pop culture references, and Livingstone’s chain-smoking in her office, we’re continually reminded of the 1970s. This isn’t a bad thing, but could have been made perhaps more explicit.
Agnes of God excels in its exploration of the tensions between faith and science, and how these tensions can lead to harmful and oppressive behaviour on both sides of the schism. Both Mother Superior Ruth Miriam, with her selfish motivations to keep the truth at bay, and Dr. Livingstone with her obsessive need for a rational explanation put their needs before that of Agnes, while claiming to be acting in her best interest.
The best thing about the play is Agnes and the woman who plays her. Annie Arbuckle brings depth and complexity to the seemingly simple Agnes, ranging between childlike innocence and rage, fear and sorrow, showing a nuanced spectrum of responses people have to trauma, and the stories survivors tell themselves to make sense of the horrors they’ve experienced. I was often pulled to the edge of my seat by Arbuckle’s sensitive and dynamic portrayal of the complicated Agnes.
I don’t watch a lot of live theatre and when I do I tend to seek light, escapist fare. This is definitely not that. It is dark and heavy and has a frankly unsatisfying ending. So I don’t think I can encourage or discourage folks to see it. There are elements (namely Arbuckle’s Agnes) that are incredible, and other elements that made it a pretty tough way to spend two hours. I would caution anyone who has experienced childhood abuse, sexual assault, or religious abuse that this has the potential to be incredibly triggering and to make their decision with that in mind.
Agnes of God runs through November 29, 2015, with 8:00 p.m. performances Thursday-Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 p.m. Location: PAL Studio Theatre, 8th floor, 581 Cardero Street, Vancouver.
Tickets can be purchased online: Adults – $20 Seniors/Students – $18