Opening night. Those two words struck fear into our hearts as we waited in the backstage wing of the Alumnae Auditorium on the night of November 6. We three actresses had worked hard on this show, as always, but “Agnes of God” was unlike anything that we had ever participated in before—not only because it was being treated as a part of Judson’s Project Curiosity, but also because the twists and turns in Agnes’s story baffled us as actresses just as much as they baffled our audience.
The show, written by John Pielmeier, is about a state psychiatrist named Dr. Martha Livingstone (played by Grace Terry) who is assigned to the case of Agnes, a young, mentally-disturbed nun (played by Lela Ball) accused of murdering her newborn child and stuffing it in a wastepaper basket. However, she is unable to recall anything that happened on the nights of the birth and conception. This leaves the mystery up to Dr. Livingstone to solve, but the leader of the convent, Mother Miriam Ruth (played by myself) only wishes for Agnes to be left alone to fall on the mercy of the court.
Personally, this show was incredibly challenging to deal with. I’d never been in a show that deals with heavy topics such as sexual abuse, uncertainty of identity, and blurred lines between theology and mental health. From an actress’s viewpoint, it’s difficult to place yourself in the same situation that the characters of “Agnes of God” are in simply because it’s so unpleasant to think about. All three characters were so emotionally complex that finding an angle to portray the character was tedious—for example, portraying Mother Miriam too humbly would belittle the strong-minded facet of her personality that Pielmeier wished to project, but playing her too strongly would make her seem less like the Mother Superior of a convent and more like the antagonist in some cult horror film. Because of this complexity, playing the character felt like walking a tightrope or balancing a light switch between on and off. However, Grace, Lela, and I all agree that our experiences with such elaborate characters have provided us with a brand-new understanding of acting that we can all take forward with us as our acting careers progress.
While the show does answer many questions that the audience might have, such as what happened on the night of the birth and who is responsible for the child’s demise, the show leaves most questions unanswered and open to interpretation by the viewers. Additionally, there are many different fields of study that contribute to the thorough understanding of the plot of “Agnes of God”; not only does the show potentially appeal to religion and psychology students, but it also appeals to music, art, and social work students (just to name a few!). It was fascinating (and incredibly satisfying) as a performer to hear a multitude of students from several departments of study show such interest in a performance and want to know more about the play’s context.
It was also exhilarating to stand upon a stage with nervous adrenaline fueling your actions and observe the audience’s reactions to the execution of your lines. The show was performed in universal lighting (meaning that the house lights were on for the entirety of the performance), so it was easy to look out at the faces of those in the crowd and see their astonished expressions as they attempted to unravel the intricacies of the plot, as well as their empathetic reactions to the more emotionally-charged moments. It truly makes you connect with the show on a level that you’d never been able to achieve before, and I think that’s why “Agnes of God” was such an invigorating experience for all of us involved. Something about that feeling of pride and accomplishment that we all experienced after the curtains closed for the final time made us sigh with both relief and amazement, and the knowledge that we were a part of something that both entertained and perplexed our audience made our experience with the show more than worth it.