EPAC’s ‘Agnes’ is killer entertainment

By on June 18, 2014

When I was young — just barely old enough to remember — I got booted from Sunday school. You see, I had just learned about the digestive system. I was fascinated with the fact that stomach acids could break down food. Learning whales had three stomachs to do the job made them a topic of much interest to my blossoming mind.

When I was told the story of Jonah and the Whale I simply could not believe. I explained to my teacher and — to her dismay — all the other kids in class it was impossible for Jonah to survive a stint inside the belly of a whale. I was told to have faith and believe in God’s miracle. Nope, I was young and headstrong; the belly of a whale was no place for a human to survive. Having had enough of my blasphemous support of science and unwillingness to accept the miracle of the Lord, the instructor booted me from Sunday school, right there on the spot.

“Agnes of God” cast members Meegan Gagnon (left) and Robin Payne at the Ephrata Performing  Arts Center. (Photo by Marty Heisey)

“Agnes of God” cast members Meegan Gagnon (left) and Robin Payne at the Ephrata Performing Arts Center. (Photo by Marty Heisey)

I remember sitting in the grass waiting for what seemed hours for my mom to finally come and pick me up. I wasn’t mad. I just sat and pulled blades of grass from the lawn, ran from a bee, and forgot about whales and the Bible. Certainly the event did not turn me into an atheist. People handle conflict with the church and its ideals differently. The character of Dr. Livingstone in “Agnes of God” lost her faith and blamed the church after her sister died young in a convent.

Theatergoers braved the rain Thursday, June 12 to see “Agnes of God” as it opened at EPAC. The dramatic play, written by John Pielmeier, opened on Broadway in 1982. The original Agnes was played by Amanda Plummer (famous for her roles in the movies “Pulp Fiction” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”) who won a Tony award for her performance. At EPAC, Agnes is played by Juliana Wardle who is making her Ephrata debut after recently starring in “The Lottery” and “Peter Pan.”

The set is minimal by design. A darkness lets the crowd know something unpleasant has happened. It is Dr. Livingstone (Meegan Gagnon) who sets the scene for “Agnes of God” as she tells us she is a court appointed psychiatrist tasked with determining the competency of the young nun, Agnes, who may be facing charges of manslaughter or murder. We immediately learn Agnes, unbeknownst to the church, has carried a baby to full term and the paternity circumstances are a mystery. The baby is dead. While in the convent, Agnes was under the charge of Mother (Robin Payne) who uses wit and ferocity to protect Agnes from Dr. Livingstone.

EPAC regulars will recognize Gagnon because her last show at EPAC was the last show. She played the servant woman Frieda in “Sunday in the Park with George” last month. This is also not her first go ‘round with authority; she played Mother Superior in “The Sound of Music” and Anna in “The King and I.” Patrons will have to remember back to last summer when Payne was last in EPAC as Kate in “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” which played in June 2013. This is the actress’ twelfth season at EPAC with past roles as Stella in “Follies” (2003), LaVonda in “Sordid Lives” (2006), and Ma Strong in “Urinetown” (2006).

The cast of “Agnes of God” may only be three characters, but the performance is far from simple. This dramatic thriller is spiked with comedy and horror and relies on the powerful acting of the three women. Their cohesive performance not only pits individuals against each other but questions the fabric of our consciousness; “Agnes of God” is much more than science vs. religion. The play asks viewers to question all the beliefs they hold true and even those they neglect to acknowledge. Once again, the community is provided the EPAC maxim: theater that matters.

The story of “Agnes of God” is, at its basest form, horrifying. The death of a newborn is shuddering no matter the means and sadly it is a circumstance all too real. Pseudo-historians, conspiracy theorists, and curious theater/film fans look at “Agnes of God” as based on true events. In the 1970s in Brighton, N.Y., a nun named Maureen Murphy was found in the same horrible circumstances as Agnes. As the story goes, Murphy was investigated and tried and ultimately found not guilty by reason of insanity. To set the record straight “Agnes of God” author Pielmeier writes: “For a good while I had been looking for an idea upon which to hang a play about questions of faith — looking, essentially, for a plot clothesline. About a year earlier I had seen a headline in the Post or the News shouting ‘Nun Kills Baby!’ I didn’t read the actual story …”

EPAC’s “Agnes of God” is riveting entertainment — a cross between courtroom thriller (without the courtroom) and intellectual treatise. I gasped in horror, sat on the edge of my seat in pure anticipation, felt awkward and alone; the performance was wholly moving. It’s a lot better than the story of Jonah and the Whale, trust me.

Michael C. Upton works as a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure covering subjects ranging from funk punk to fine wine. He invites your comments and suggestions at 354-0609.

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