Bad Habits

It seems ridiculous to call a play about child abuse, infanticide and mental illness naive. And while there's nothing innocent or unworldly about a young nun accused of murdering her newborn baby, it's difficult to get past the fact that Agnes of God feels terminally dated.

Perhaps in the Stoned Age of 1979, when John Pielmeier's play was first produced, arguing over the plausibility of virgin births and the existence of God, as well as the possibility of an isolated cover-up in a Catholic convent, served as exciting dramatic fodder, but it all seems a bit superfluous in a time of unfathomable sexual scandal among the Catholic clergy and in a world where good old-fashioned monotheistic faith has never been deadlier.This bare-bones production of Agnes, helmed by Steph Davis, while definitely earnest and respectful of the script, fails to make Pielmeier's play feel truly compelling or urgent. It seems trapped in the play's head—its words and ideas—and rarely explores the heart of what is really happening between its three characters. For a play that talks so much of soul, there's very little in this production.

The central intellectual thrust is here—the conflict between devout religious faith, as embodied by Sister Miriam (Ruth Kurisu), and rational science, in the person of psychiatrist Dr. Martha Livingston (Barbara Barkley). But all too often, it comes off as a bunch of words as opposed to keenly urgent drama.

Just as our sister and doctor are fighting over the fate of Agnes (a beautifully innocent, hauntingly fragile Annemarie Ross), they're also battling over their respective belief systems. One has found religion late in life and desperately wants to validate her belief; the other long since abandoned mysticism for the rational, but just as desperately yearns to find something to believe in other than empirical reason.

That battle should feel vitally important, and we ought to smell the blood and tears. But director Davis' flaccid production dilutes the dramatic stakes. Annoyingly quick blackouts between scenes rob the audience of the opportunity to reflect on what's just happened, and his actors, while all talented, mostly spiral in their own worlds. You can excuse Ross' Agnes on that front: Mental instability does tend to trap one in a rather insular realm. But Sister Marie and Dr. Livingston are forced to share the same time and place, and what's most interesting about them are their commonalities rather than their differences.

Rarely does that realization happen in this production, primarily because the characters rarely appreciate their connection. They're closed off physically from themselves—Kurisu's Sister is hidden beneath her habit, and Barkley's Dr. Livingston usually stands with her arms crossed—and that contributes to their characters' disassociation.

It might sound like mechanical, stagy stuff, but many times, what most keeps a production from effectively telling its story are its nuts and bolts. Tighten and lube those babies up, and this Agnesmight not only move better, but it could also transport an audience to a place where the old, hoary questions suddenly feel like the most vital ones to ask.

Agnes of God at the Orange Curtain Theatre, 31776 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano, (949) 412-3252; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through Sept. 23. $15-$18.

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