A young woman in a white habit sits left. A woman in a brown sweater and skirt kneels before her, clutching her shoulders. A nun in full black-and-white habit stands behind them.
Soleil Pérez (left), Jacqueline Grandt, and Debra Rodkin in Agnes of God at Redtwist Theatre Credit: Tom McGrath

John Pielmeier’s 1979 drama Agnes of God—whose title is a reference to “Agnus Dei,” Latin for “Lamb of God”—is an intriguing if somewhat murky mystery that asks both “whodunit” and “whydunit.” Inspired by real events, the plot concerns a 21-year-old novice nun, Agnes (Soleil Pérez), who is suspected of killing her own newborn infant. Agnes (named after Agnes of Rome, a patron saint of virgins and victims of sexual abuse) had been found in her convent room covered in blood while, nearby, a garbage can contained the body of a baby strangled with its own umbilical cord. Agnes has no memory of the incident—or even of being pregnant—and insists she is a virgin. A psychiatrist, Dr. Martha Livingstone (Jacqueline Grandt), has been appointed by the court to determine whether Agnes is competent to stand trial.

Agnes of God
Through 7/16: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3:30 PM; understudy performance Mon 6/26 7:30 PM, Redtwist Theatre, 1040 W. Bryn Mawr, 773-728-7529, redtwisttheatre.org, $25 (pay what you can Fri, $15 understudy performance 6/26, senior/student/military $10

Besides Agnes’s hysterical amnesia, Martha must contend with the convent’s fiercely protective Mother Superior Miriam (Debra Rodkin), who clings to her belief in Agnes’s spiritual (if not legal) innocence and thinks the young woman may have been touched by God in some way that defies human comprehension. To further complicate matters, Miriam is Agnes’s aunt, while Martha is a lapsed Catholic who still, deep down, yearns for the comfort that religion can provide to believers.

Is Agnes insane? How did she become pregnant in the first place? Did she actually kill the baby—and, if not, who did? To unravel the case’s myriad mysteries, Martha resorts to hypnosis to recover the young nun’s traumatic memories—and does she ever!

A 1982 Broadway hit, Agnes of God today plays as a period piece. The once-common use of hypnosis to recover repressed memories is now considered unreliable and harmful. Martha’s employment of the technique to release Agnes’s memories of childhood abuse, and Martha’s own history with the church, would almost certainly disqualify her from being assigned to Agnes’s case now. The fact that Martha is a chain-smoker—requiring the actor playing her to light up a distractingly fake stage cigarette at the start of almost every scene—is also jarring, or at least it was to this 2023 viewer. But to the credit of the cast and director Clare Brennan, this earnest, intimate storefront production avoids the script’s tendencies toward sensationalism while affirming its theme of collective healing.