In his preshow announcement at Agnes of God, Palm Beach Dramaworks' executive artistic director, Bill Hayes, points out that Agnes has not been performed in South Florida for almost 30 years. You think: Amazing! Such a famous play, so talked-about in its time and so well-regarded. Thirty years?
Of course, being a Floridian, you might have never actually seen the thing — except the movie with Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, and Meg Tilly. Even then, it's been a while. Agnes is not a big seller on DVD. No one watches it, but everyone remembers. Or so they think. Look again, and realize with dawning horror that what looked like cutting-edge Art-with-a-capital-A in 1985 can molder as it languishes at the periphery of the culture, looking more and more like a timely exploitation of the trendy tropes of yesteryear. This is the case with the Tony Award-nominated, Golden Globe Award-nominated Agnes of God. For a clue to Agnes' real place in the canon, plug her name into the Internet Movie Database, scroll to the bottom of the screen, and read these words: "If you enjoyed this title, our database also recommends Basic Instinct, The Exorcist, Dead Again, I Confess, and The Devil's Advocate."
Now, I haven't seen Dead Again or I Confess, and I am mystified by Basic Instinct's presence on the list. But The Exorcist and The Devil's Advocate I get, and if that's your thing, you'll probably like Agnes of God. Pseudo-spooky, pseudo-deep, and watered-down explications of real philosophical problems within modern religions abound. Serious drama aboundeth not.
A comprehensive slog through the long litany of venal fuckups that make up Agnes would take a long time, but it's just two big ones that make the show unwatchable for anyone who hasn't been cryogenically frozen since Sybil. The first is a shockingly ugly script: a mixed bag of sexploitative psychobabble direct from the "True Crime" racks, stupefyingly facile philosophy that couldn't pass for deep in a stoned teenager's bedroom, bad morals, and outright dishonesty. The second is the acting. Lisa Morgan hasn't been onstage two minutes before you get the feeling she'd rather be somewhere else. Wait another two minutes and you'll want to go with her.
It's not easy to make Morgan look bad. She is one of the two or three best actresses in South Florida, and with a good character or even a half-decent one, she can hold a stage with anybody. Here, she can't even hold the stage with her costars. At least they know who they're supposed to be. Barbara Bradshaw is Mother Miriam Ruth, an old nun struggling to maintain her faith in a secular age while protecting her most vulnerable charge, Agnes. Agnes is a 21-year-old nun played convincingly by Margery Lowe, who hasn't been 21 for a while. Agnes sings "like an angel" and is totally deranged. She was recently pregnant, and since she knows nothing about sex, she has no idea how she got that way. She also seems to have no idea how her baby wound up dead in a wastepaper basket.
But Morgan will find out. She is Dr. Martha Livingstone, a hardheaded atheist with a serious beef against Catholics, and she's been assigned to Agnes' case by the court. What happened to Agnes' baby? Is Agnes really a nutbag? Or might she be... a saint?
I figured out pretty quickly that Agnes wasn't a saint. She's too obnoxious, bleating her way across the stage like a denatured lamb. Some Catholics will tell you that saints have bled from their hands, but nobody says anything about saints who make you bleed from the ears.
This means nothing, of course. When playwright John Pielmeier was coming up with Agnes, he probably didn't realize he was laying the blueprint for one of the most annoying characters in all of drama. Whether squealing about her abiding love of God or shrieking about her long-departed abusive mother, Agnes is a character with her volume turned to 11. Totally unnecessary in the real world but maybe appropriate for Agnes: This play is into histrionics. Most scenes end with hyperemotive revelations, and those that don't tend to end with loud arguments between Mother Miriam and the doctor. These are supposed to represent a clashing of worldviews, but they don't come close. The deepest Agnes gets is Mother Miriam's breathless explanation that "what we've gained in logic, we've lost in faith." Thanks, Mum.
The absurdity goes on and on. If you can sit through it all, you'll develop a queasy suspicion that Dr. Livingstone might soon hypnotize Agnes to get her to remember the night of her baby's death. Even still, you'll cringe when the doctor suggests it, for there is nothing more hackneyed than the emotive expunging of repressed memories while under hypnosis. When it happens, it goes exactly as you'd expect — you could have written the scene, though if you had, your tongue would have been lodged firmly in your cheek. The hypnosis goes something like this: Margery Lowe, flailing around, screaming things like "It's dark in here! Who's there? No! You! YOU! Don't come near me don't come near me — No!" while Mother Miriam screams things like "No! Bring her out of it! You're hurting her!"
Morgan at least seems to know this is sheer garbage. Her stilted delivery recalls William Shatner in a Travelocity commercial, and even though she's supposed to be a lapsed Catholic, she sounds like a New York Jew. For some unholy reason, she occasionally lapses into a kind of hardboiled, Marlow-esque detective persona, but the material is so dumb that she comes off like Guy Noir. These decisions can be attributable to one of only two things: recent brain surgery or a total disinterest in the piece. And Morgan has no visible scars.
No — this is disinterest, pure and simple. And why not? The whole point of Agnes of God seems to be strong-arming us into thinking that secularism is bad, God is great, and the world would be a better place if we were all Catholic. Some will disagree and insist that there is a higher, finer meaning in all of this, but they are wrong. The play itself lies to you — claiming that there are such things as psychics who bend spoons with their minds, and stigmatas and faith healers and whatall. I know, as you should know, as Pielmeier should have known, that all of these things are for-profit quackery with no place in art — just like Catholic morals and Catholic gods. Art is the realm of the Marquis de Sade, and even the prettiest Catholic murals are mostly gay porn. Pielmeier's play is not fun, not insightful, not lyrical, and it's not even right. Also: The set is ugly.