by David Pierce
Iowa City – A young nun is torn between two opposing women in Agnes of God, the Iowa City Community Theatre’s (ICCT’s) last production of the 2015-16 season.
Agnes of God is a fill-in show for the play originally scheduled in this spot, American Idiot. It’s the tale of Agnes, a young nun played by Alexis Russell, who gives birth to a baby that dies under strange circumstances. Robin McCright plays Dr. Livingstone, a court-appointed psychiatrist assigned to determine Agnes’ mental competence. Connie Stannard rounds out the trio as Mother Superior, who feels it is her mission to shield Agnes from Livingstone.
It’s weird that this doesn’t work better. All three actresses are talented performers. When Stannard and Russell are on stage together, the scenes are vibrant and alive. When McCright and Russell are on stage together, the scenes are electric. But despite their obvious talent, the scenes between Stannard and McCright oftentimes don’t work at all, frequently becoming boring and repetitive.
I don’t think this is the fault of the actresses. When Livingstone or Mother Superior are onstage as a duo with Agnes, they are allowed to be fully realized characters. But when they’re onstage with each other – which is most of the play, unfortunately – or onstage as an ensemble with Agnes, the script turns them from women into all-caps ARGUMENTS for SCIENCE (Livingstone) and SPIRITUALITY (Mother Superior), whose only reason for existence is to bludgeon each other, and the audience, over the head with their viewpoint. When they’re onstage alone or with Agnes, the characters are allowed different shades, but there is nothing subtle going on when Livingstone and Mother Superior are onstage together.
In addition to lacking in subtlety, the script is also extremely dated. There’s a reference to being between Phil Donahue and Dan Rather that would be mostly lost on modern audiences. There’s a lot of smoking (more on that in a bit) and a short conversation about cigarette brands that falls flat. Worst of all, the bulk of the second act centers around Dr. Livingstone using hypnosis to recover Agnes’ memories, a practice that has been completely discredited in the 34 years since the play debuted. Indeed, we now know that hypnosis actually works to create false memories, and as a result the second act reads as Livingstone trying to implant fake memories into Agnes. There’s a reason the only Broadway production of this show was the original production in 1982.
There are some other issues as well. Many of the scenes are played in the floor space in front of the main area, and oftentimes the actresses were unable to find their lighting marks in those scenes. In the final sequence all three actresses are in that space and oftentimes none of them were in the light. There also seemed to be quite a few line drops. However, these are the sort of opening night issues that should get worked out.
Aside from those issues, the production itself is well done. The set is the sort of minimalist set that I absolutely love, and it works great here. The costumes are well-done, the lighting well-done. Director Josh Sazon stages the production very nicely, with a wonderful use of the performance space, and as mentioned, all three actresses do strong work with the material as written. The problem again is that the material as written ranges from very strong to weak and boring. It’s a shame the strong effort from all the cast and crew couldn’t have been done in support of a better play.
About all the smoking – there is nothing in the program warning the audience that there will be smoking on stage, which seems like a rather important thing to mention in 2016 even if what the cast is using are stage cigarettes. Indeed, if the cast is using stage cigarettes, the program should mention that fact if for no other reason than to reassure the audience that actual cigarettes aren’t being used.
There’s probably enough good here to make it worth your while to see the show. Agnes of God runs one more weekend, with Friday and Saturday shows at 7:30 on the 29th and 30th, and a Sunday matinee at 2:30. Tickets are available at the ICCT box office, by calling ICCT at 338-0443, or by visiting ICCT here.