Agnes of God stars (left to right) Laine Henderson as Dr. Livingstone

Agnes of God stars (left to right) Laine Henderson as Dr. Livingstone

SIGHTLINES: Agnes displays power of pure theatre

Strong performances tackling heavy subject matter make for first-rate production

Peninsula Productions has taken a bold step in promoting intelligent, compelling theatre in White Rock and South Surrey with its latest play, Agnes of God, running at Coast Capital Playhouse until Saturday, March 9.

Done right, John Pielmeier’s challenging, intense drama is guaranteed to put audiences through an emotional wringer – and this production, directed by Wendy Bollard, is sound in all of its artistic choices.

That includes finding excellent players for all three roles: Becky Hachey as spiritual, loving novice nun Agnes; Nancy Ebert as her Mother Superior, a pragmatic but conflicted mentor; and Laine Henderson as court-ordered psychiatrist Dr. Livingstone, whose clinical approach masks scars left by her own tragedies.

A play with the premise that a nun has given birth to a baby – which we are told was found in a wastebasket, shortly afterward, strangled with its umbilical cord – is never going to be an easy sell for audiences accustomed to popular, feel-good stage productions.

We should remember, however, that theatre, as well as a purveyor of light-weight entertainments, is a medium with the power to provide emotional catharsis and a challenge to preconceived attitudes.

These are qualities Agnes of God possesses in spades, and ticket holders for the remainder of the brief run can be sure they are playing their part in supporting a first-rate production.

Potential audience members, too – who might otherwise be put off by heavy themes – owe it to themselves to catch this demonstration of the power of pure theatre.

Hachey’s performance in this piece is a revelation. While local audiences have seen her mainly in farcical or overwrought roles, the discipline and focus that Agnes demands have allowed her to shine.

Her Agnes seems to glow, almost literally, with an inner light of goodness, and the purity of her singing voice (Hachey’s background as a musical entertainer is particularly helpful) means that the important element of music – as Agnes’ principal means of expression – is not shortchanged.

At the same time, her portrayal of Agnes as a young woman who has seemingly suppressed everything bad that has happened to her is genuinely touching, and, ultimately, devastating.

Ebert’s expert playing of the down-to-earth, surprisingly plain-spoken Mother Superior achieves the top rung of theatrical legerdemain – she disappears as an actress and becomes the woman.

Hers is well-judged, naturalistic acting of the highest order and the gradual discovery of the character’s hidden agendas – and her longing for the possibility that miracles can exist in the modern world – is all the more effective because it occurs organically, without being subject to obvious theatrical tricks.

In only her second acting role (she triumphed as Molly for Bollard in last year’s The Mousetrap), Henderson matches her two colleagues in both strength and sincerity as Dr. Livingstone.

It’s a difficult role, because the playwright has chosen to make Livingstone not only a flawed participant in this tragic triangle of damaged humanity and psychological denial, but also the narrator.

Although I felt Henderson struggling a little in the matinee performance I saw, with some of the storytelling demands of the role – particularly in early scenes – the actress’ distinctive ability to project empathy and vulnerability succeeds in achieving the necessary rapport with the audience. She creates a believable woman who has struggles with the tenets of her own faith.

Technical director Bev Siver’s set design – making great use of Andy Sorensen’s ability to create with metal – provides an evocative and dynamic space for the action, enhanced by Matt Vondette’s lighting, which is consistently, but subtly effective, and Bollard’s own sound design.

Surrey North Delta Leader