Chicago Cooperative Stage

When Equus appeared in 1973 you could feel a change in the theater’s attitude toward psychiatry. Where earlier works like Strange Interlude, Lady in the Dark, and Three Faces of Eve painted the trade as a noble discipline bent on unblocking traumatic memories and freeing sufferers from their past, Peter Shaffer’s antirational Equus questioned how far even a professional should tinker with the mind, let alone the soul. Dr. Dysart’s dilemma is that if he “cures” this boy of his violent horse worship, he destroys his ecstatic escape from a wretched home life that can’t be cured.

In Agnes of God, John Pielmeier maintains there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in psychoanalysis. Especially in heaven. Pielmeier replaces Shaffer’s tug-of-war between boy and shrink with a three-cornered contest among a mother superior, a court psychiatrist, and Agnes, the woman whose soul or sanity they’re fighting for.

Though the face-off is ultimately more polemical than dramatic and more sensational than serious, Agnes of God does provide forensic fireworks and bravura acting opportunities. Poppycock it may be but it’s passionate poppycock; you could almost love it for its excess.

The narrator, Dr. Martha Livingstone, has the sleuthlike task of determining Agnes’s mental fitness. Agnes is about to stand trial for the murder of a baby she can’t remember giving birth to and denies having conceived–let alone strangled and dumped in a wastebasket.

Agnes is no normal mother. She’s a 21-year-old nun who can’t read, has never watched TV or seen a movie, and has spent her life behind a convent’s walls. Though Agnes is ignorant and afraid of sex, Martha Livingstone must believe she learned it somewhere, because for this secular humanist the “alternate real”–virgin birth (or, as she put it, “hysterical parthenogenesis”)–is profoundly threatening.

So, chain-smoking and increasingly obsessed, Martha makes it her mission to rescue Agnes from her own superstition. And from this detestable convent (Martha’s sister, a nun, had died when the mother superior refused to provide medical treatment).

Mother Miriam Ruth, Agnes’s protective–or defensive–mother superior, smells out this bias and protests these probings. To her, Agnes “belongs to God.” She tells Martha, “I don’t want that mind cut open.” The court should return Agnes to the convent to do penance for a crime that no layperson can truly comprehend, let alone judge.

Pielmeier builds his scenes through a familiar formula: each confrontation yields a revelation that sets up the next (until the final mystery, which remains one). In the process tile playwright exposes each woman’s special reason for making Agnes into her image. The faith of Miriam (who turns out to be Agnes’s aunt) was built on the need to escape a bad marriage and two daughters who turned atheist. Miriam must believe Agnes ignorant–innocent–of the child she bore, because Agnes must remain a living rebuke to a world that’s lost a sense of “primitive wonder,” where “what we’ve gained in logic we’ve lost in faith.”

Martha also sees Agnes as innocent, legally innocent–the daughter of an alcoholic who reviled her as ugly and burned her with cigarettes. Unexpectedly, Agnes brings out maternal longings in this all too efficient, stereotypically tight-assed career woman (she can’t menstruate anymore and she aborted her own child). Intent on exposing the real baby killer, Martha will use hypnosis (a rather old-fashioned dramatic gimmick) on Agnes to ferret out the truth.

Of course Agnes and her alleged innocence are more complex than either woman can allow. After all, not every young nun carries a bleeding stigma on her palm, gets pregnant despite the apparent lack of a man to help her, and ferociously fasts to deny her strange new weight.

Though the play, if not the film, does offer a scintilla of a rational explanation, Pielmeier clearly has a miracle in mind. He doesn’t just ask, like Shaw at the end of Saint Joan, if our world really wants a saint–he hands us one.

That’s my problem with this neomedieval play–it’s a histrionic attempt to refute Inherit the Wind. Sure it puts down both the mother superior’s unquestioning religiosity and the shrink’s self-defeating skepticism. But it appears to admire in Agnes a dangerous, hysterical piety. Pielmeier may argue that science (which is not the same thing as psychiatry) needs to wonder, but he gives this holy abortion neither the right nor the means to explain itself (At least Equus never imagined a real horse-god who demanded sacrifices.)

Still, despite its teasing with the supernatural, Agnes is an actor’s trove, and director Casmir Recio has his actors tearing hell-bent through the material. Martha tells more than she shows, but Elaine Behr brings a sharp-edged spontaneity to her detective dialogue and gratuitous outpourings. If Jacqueline Verdeyen’s mother superior is too blatantly hostile in her exchanges and evasions, she’s powerfully persuasive mounting her self-serving defense of Agnes’s innocence. Finally, Mia Lefkowitz creates an Agnes on fire.

But Pielmeier’s play is just smoke and mirrors.