“Agnes of God” opens with a backdrop that clearly suggests a religious and austere setting, with a beauty and light that are quite striking.
The three women in this play are attired in contrasting clothing: Mother Miriam Ruth in a standard black nun’s garb, the psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingstone in a brown pants suit that exemplifies 1980s power-dressing, and the young novice Agnes, dressed in white robes that suggest her purity and innocence. The clean lines of the set and the wardrobe color palette are some details that really enhance the play.
Although I knew the play featured Agnes and the mysterious birth and death of a newborn, I did not know the details of the plot. You may have seen the 1980s-era film featuring Anne Bancroft, Jane Fonda, and Meg Tilly, but I have not.
Agnes is a 21-year-old novice (meaning she is a relatively new resident who lives a nun’s life but has not yet taken her vows) with a mysterious past.
A ghastly scene involving Agnes on the ground, passed out from lack of blood, with a baby in the wastepaper basket under the bed, is described. Livingstone is the court-appointed psychiatrist with her own history of loss and trauma, who is far from a disinterested observer. Mother Miriam Ruth is not too interested in getting at the truth, and seeks desperately to stop the inquiries, but is she doing this to protect Agnes, or for some other reason?
As I was watching the play, I could not help but wonder what would happen now if a Mother Superior insisted on attending her novice’s psychiatric sessions, and if the psychiatrist freely shared what she had learned from Agnes with the Mother Superior. Rules were looser during the time the play was set in the 1980s, but I doubt this play should be taken as a legal guide in any event. According to Wikipedia, the play was inspired by a real-life case involving a 36-year-old nun with a somewhat similar story of concealed pregnancy.
All three women in the play have different experiences of femininity and womanhood, but all relate to womanhood through the prism of their Catholic upbringings, even when this has been discarded, as with Livingstone.
It’s hard to say much without spoilers, so I will stop here. But I will say that Annie Arbuckle, who plays Agnes, has a wonderfully lovely voice singing Latin songs. In contemplative orders, to which the nuns belong in this play, nuns often had choirs where their voices could be heard only from behind a screen. That may even still be true in a few places.
Whether or not you are a Catholic (I am not), the themes of this play are universal for anyone concerned with the plight of girls and women. The acting is compelling, and I was more drawn into the mystery than I expected.