By Beki Pineda

AGNES OF GOD – Written by John Pielmeier; Directed by Craig Bond. Produced by Vintage Theatre (1468 Dayton St, Aurora) through July 8th. Tickets available at 303/856-7830 or vintagetheatre.com.

John Pielmeier is one of those under the radar writers that carve out an amazing career for themselves without drawing too much attention. He started out as an actor appearing at the Guthrie and the Humana Festival in Kentucky. He was cast in a production at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference and while there, fell in love with the art of the playwright.  AGNES OF GOD was his first and most successful play written a year later. He has three novels under his belt and has written for film, TV and the theatre for over forty years. His two latest projects were the successful musical – SLOW DANCE WITH A HOT PICKUP – and the recent theatrical adaptation of William Blatty’s THE EXORCIST which enjoyed a long run in London’s West End last year and is coming to Broadway this year.

AGNES was inspired by a simple headline – “Nun Kills Baby.” But how much more complicated is this treatise on faith . . . hope . . . salvation. Young Agnes (Mariel Goffredi) is a novitiate in a cloistered convent who was abused emotionally, mentally and physically by her mother and has now been violated in the only safe place she has known. She has born a child inside the convent where there is no contact with men and has been charged with the baby’s murder. A psychiatrist (Haley Johnson) has been appointed by the court to determine her ability to stand trial and her mental state. The Mother Superior of the convent (Emma Messenger), while recognizing her legal responsibility, also feels a strong spiritual responsibility to protect Agnes from the outside world. The battle of wills and words between Dr. Livingstone and Sister Miriam is akin to watching a tennis match with Agnes as the ball. A powerful dialogue ensues regarding the nature of faith, the possibility of miracles, the ingredients of sainthood, and the components of survival. While potential answers are found, they are not satisfying to any one and do more damage than good.

There is no use in wasting words on the acting excellence of Johnson and Messenger; this is not their first rodeo together. Hopefully, it won’t be their last. When these two powerhouse actresses go toe to toe, you’d best not get between them. But what fun it is to watch the fireworks. It turns out that both characters have a damaging backstory that is slowly revealed through reverie and conversation. Neither come into this consultation with an open mind. Their equal ability to reveal the inner stories of their characters is fascinating to watch. Mariel is a revelation as Agnes and brings an ethereal quality to her – not quite of this world.  Yet when she lets go and gets angry, she stops both Dr. Livingstone and Sister Miriam dead in their tracks  It’s then that you can believe the world she endured before she found refuge in the convent.

It’s clear from the beginning that this is Dr. Livingstone’s story – one that she has already lived through and is reliving it to tell it to the audience. A memory play, as it were. I was told that this was the logic for the set which looks as though they are living in the clouds – that it’s seen through the haze of memory. For me, this was a little too “down to Earth” play to be set in the clouds. Hopeful but realistic – poignant but powerful – instinctual but investigative – not esoteric and other-worldly. However, it does provide them with a platform upon which to build the story and that’s what a set is supposed to do.

A very profound WOW factor of 9!!