Saturday, October 26, 2019

review - AGNES OF GOD - Fountain Hills Theater

Carrie Ellen Jones, Bethany Springs, and Patty Stephens
Photo by Stephanie ‘Tippi’ Hart
by Carolyn Thomas

For anyone that's ever questioned their faith, Agnes of God rings true no matter the outcome of their questioning. It cuts deep and visits some very dark subjects, but remains captivating at every turn. Fountain Hills Theater's production brings out the best in the play with a stellar cast, both heartfelt and heart-wrenching in their performances.

John Pielmeier wrote Agnes of God in the late 1970s and the drama hit the Broadway stage in 1982, traveling on to London and eventually to a movie staring Jane Fonda in 1985. The story centers around Dr. Martha Livingston, a psychiatrist tasked with assisting the investigation into the death of a newborn at a convent, born to the innocent Agnes who is flanked closely by the watchful Mother Superior. Dr. Livingston and Mother Superior clash on nearly every front, each trying to help Agnes in their own way as they seek to discover the truth. Though heavy laden with themes of spirituality, faith, and "primitive wonder" as Mother Superior puts it, the play is noncommittal in terms of religious belief or atheism as any kind of decisive answer to the many questions presented. The real questions posed are less about what might be true and more about what each character wants most dearly to believe in. Although the dialogue is largely centered around the differences between a scientific mind and a faith-based will, Dr. Livingston and Mother Ruth find more similarities than they do differences even if they never truly agree. With a simple cast of three and a static set, Agnes of God heavily relies on a capable cast to succeed. In Fountain Hills Theater's production, a talented trio shows the best this play has to offer.

Carrie Ellen Jones as Dr. Martha Livingston has the most challenging task: portraying a typically stoic, guarded character without closing herself off to the audience. She skillfully brings out the cracks in Dr. Livingston's armor in a way that makes her relatable and real to the audience. Jones truly triumphs as Dr. Livingston. Playing her perfect foil, Mother Miriam Ruth, FHT newcomer Patty Stephens brings a similar serene ferocity to the elder of the nuns. Her overpowering desire to keep Agnes innocent and naive is practically tangible. The doe-eyed subject of their many discussions, Agnes, is played by another FHT newcomer Bethany Springs, who adds the perfect child-like charm to this difficult role. Springs' portrayal is fresh and idyllic to the point of detaching from reality, exactly as the playwright intended. The trio together make a solidly talented cast that work very well together.

Wanda McHatton's direction focuses on highlighting the relationships between all three women, the highs and lows and everything in between. The strength in McHatton's direction is truly in how well the characters shine through their actors, and in a play like Agnes of God, it's exactly the right move. Noel Irick's costume design is perfectly evocative of two nuns and a doctor, with Livingston's costume bringing out vibes reminiscent of the 80s and 90s, perhaps in homage to the play's heyday. Set design by Jeff Blake gives the audience a room that could be housed in the courthouse, a private practice, a hotel meeting room, or a larger indiscriminate facility. It's almost frustratingly vague, but ornate and cohesive in itself. The 'light fixtures' above give the impression of a broader space than the stage actually has. Blake uses a scrim very effectively, layering scenes and characters with song in a way that's very visually appealing. Peter J. Hill's lighting shines best within the use of the scrim, though there are periods in the play where the main characters are so dimly lit that it is difficult to stay with them as an audience. Gratefully, those moments are few and far between. Largely, the lighting adds subtle touches that elevate the production, with few exceptions. Linda Ferington's prop designs are simple and effective, though few, as the play requires little in this department.

All in all, Agnes of God is a powerful play with wide appeal. It asks more questions than it answers and challenges the audience to accept that they might not ever have the answers they seek. A fantastic cast brings this deeply layered play to life on Fountain Hills Theater's stage. It's truly a show not to be missed if you like a moral challenge.

CLICK HERE for more information on Agnes of God, which runs through November 3

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