Agnes of God at New Theatre: Great Play, Less Than "Immaculate" Performance

Last weekend, New Theatre began its run of a play that explores the line between devout religious faith and utter insanity. 

As a show that presents questions about the mental health of the saints and other deeply religious people, Agnes of God is a good fit for the New Theatre, whose artistic director Ricky J. Martinez is usually eager to present alternative outlooks on sexuality, faith, ethics, and philosophy. With its engaging themes and dialog, the show could be a great asset to the theater over its three-weekend run --- contingent on the tightening up of one of the lead actor's performances. 

Agnes of God, written by American playwright John Pielmeier in 1979, debuted as the winner of the Great American Play Contest and went on to have a successful Broadway run (599 shows) before it became a feature film in 1985, starring Jane Fonda, Meg Tilly, and Anne Bancroft. The playwright credits a sensational headline --- "Nun Kills Baby!" --- he saw in a New York rag for inspiring him to pen the thought-provoking work. In it, a criminal psychologist has been assigned the task of exploring the mental state of a novice nun who has been accused of slaying her own newborn baby, a child members of the religious order believe was conceived immaculately. Not surprisingly, the psychologist is bent on demythologizing this fantastic belief.
The show, directed by Martinez, requires a single set and a cast of only three players: Dr. Livingston, the psychologist (Pamela Roza); the mother superior of the order (Barbara Sloan); and the young nun, Agnes (Christina Groom). The lights came up on a minimalist set, representative of a convent -- furnished with a wooden bench, a leather chair, clusters of candles, and a few symbolic illustrations (rorschach prints and a slice of a divine sky) that dangled from the ceiling over the center of the stage. The lyrics of a sweet Latin song of praise came floating from a character cloaked in a blinding white habit at the back of the stage, while a gruff woman in a pantsuit stepped to the front, electric cigarette dangling from her lips. 

Like a female Sergeant Joe Friday, Roza, a veteran of the South Florida stage and a Carbonell Award-winning actress, delivered a dry and dramatic monologue, the function of which was to prime the audience for a story that lacks a happy ending. Unfortunately, the actor tripped frequently over her lines from the first minute of the play and didn't manage to recover until the second act, making the initial momentum clumsy and the audience's full immersion in the drama unlikely until the final half of the show. 

As the mother superior of the convent and the guardian of the young nun and suspected murderess, Sloan, another experienced South Florida thespian and commercial actress, brought a well-pitched, confident, and sharp-yet-compassionate tone to her performance. But it was Groom, a former drama teacher in Broward County Schools whose acting credits include both South Florida stage productions and a slew of web series videos on YouTube, who lit up the production --- and that's not just because of the luminous white habit she donned from curtain to curtain. Groom capably channeled the innocent, cherubic, and confused nature of Pielmeier's lead character with every nervous chirp she uttered from the face-shaped hole of her costume. And her silken songbird voice lent an especially angelic element to her portrayal, helping to keep up the confusion about the questions of her divinity and her sanity. 

Though the first act went off with its share of awkwardness, the decorated script was brought to life more forcefully after intermission, thanks to a combination of the thickening plot and the increased fluidity of Roza's performance as the psychologist and essentially the narrator of the play. Screaming fits of hypnosis-induced orgasms and moments reminiscent of William Friedkin's The Exorcist drove the excitement of the play as the truth behind the central mystery unfolded --- at least in part. As promised at the outset, the story does not end neatly, but leaves the viewer with lingering questions about morality and the point at which divine allegiance ends and psychosis begins. 

The play runs at New Theatre at the Roxy Performing Arts Center until February 17, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 and 5 p.m., except for February 3, where there will be no Sunday shows. Tickets cost $40 with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. 

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