“Kyrie eleison,” sings a disembodied, a cappella voice, at the start of John Pielmeier’s 30-year-old, still-doleful and troublesome play, “Agnes of God.” “Kyrie eleison” – “Lord, have mercy” – an ancient Christian chant, a prayer, a plea.
Brazen-Faced Varlets, a Buffalo-based feminist theater group looking for a permanent home, has remounted the intense “Agnes” at Rust Belt Books, in a claustrophobic back room just large enough for a small desk and a chair. It’s a stark and monastic space.
The story – a young Catholic nun, alone and frightened, gives birth and strangles the baby with its umbilical cord, then discards the fetus in a wastebasket – is still as disturbing as ever, unspeakable and out of most playgoer’s comfort zones. Those are places Lara Haberberger’s Varlets love to take their audiences.
Diane DiBernardo-Blenk makes her directorial debut. A stellar cast of three, Haberberger, Kate Olena and Kelly M. Beuth, navigates brilliantly through a night filled with angels and demons, temporal and spiritual arguments, attacks and retreats.
There is an investigation into this bizarre event. (“Agnes” is based on a similar case in the Rochester suburb of Brighton a few decades ago.) Dr. Martha Livingstone (Haberberger) is a court-appointed psychiatrist, charged with interviewing Agnes to determine the girl’s mental state. Mother Miriam Ruth (Olena, an area acting doyenne), mistrusts Martha’s skills, style and goals. And Agnes (Beuth) – poor, abused, strange, sweet ascetic Agnes – doesn’t remember her ordeal: “I don’t believe in the baby,” she says.
Martha, a cradle Catholic but a current, staunch atheist, and Mother Miriam clash from the beginning. “I can smell an ex-Catholic a mile away,” Mother says. Yet, they continue.
Disclosures surface. Mother’s protective instincts about scandal and possible paternalists crack a bit; Martha’s religious hang-ups and professional ideals clash; and watchers and listeners try to sort out clues about “possession” – the Holy Spirit? Satan? What about Agnes and her instances of the bloody “holy wounds,” the stigmata? Or the bouts of inedia, the ability to live on minimal food and water, subsisting mostly on the Eucharistic wafer. Is Agnes sly and manipulative, after all?
Shocking details multiply, and theories are tested. The final minutes of “Agnes of God” are highly emotional; some facts proven, others debunked. The opening night audience looked noticeably drained at play’s end, as did Haberberger, Olena and Beuth.
Haberberger, on stage throughout, begins the night with a valise full of distracting affectations. As the play ages, she evolves and is ultimately very strong, her faith restored, a sign of the cross her testimony.
Olena is riveting as the street-wise Mother Marian, taking charge of many conversations; she is tough, but not above a meltdown. It’s a memorable portrayal.
Beuth, as Agnes, wears pain and terror on her habit sleeve all evening, dreamy, detached, her visions real. “The Lady tells me things,” she smiles, a believable child-woman, a career role superbly played. Her singing voice, one that Mother says is pristine and of inspiration, is not, but it’s dusky and it haunts. Beuth is shockingly good.
Director DiBernardo-Blenk lets the story speak for itself, and it is her pacing and sensitivity to the subject and ease with the intimate surroundings that underscore the ageless potency of “Agnes of God” and the electricity of close-up live theater. Bravo, Brazen-Faced Varlets.