Bad Habits

Nuns in trouble can't save a play in distress, in Agnes of God.

Is it possible to have faith when there are no longer any miracles? The existence of even a single Cleveland Indians fan (not to mention a Red Sox or Chicago Cubs devotee) would seem to indicate that blind faith is alive and well in our overly rational world. But things become more complex when one applies the above question to the spiritual issues of birth, death, parenthood, and the reason for our existence. These are the weighty matters that playwright John Pielmeier takes up in Agnes of God, now at Beck Center. Regrettably, this florid melodrama -- jam-packed with gratuitous character revelations, unlikely stretches of credibility-defying dialogue, and hypnosis-induced recollections -- shreds even the elastic bounds of theatrical believability and devolves into maudlin soap opera.

A young nun recently gave birth to a baby in a convent, a fact of which people became aware when the infant was discovered dead in a wastepaper basket. The girl, Agnes, claims not to remember the conception, pregnancy, or birth. Her supervisor, Mother Miriam Ruth, considers Agnes entirely innocent and apparently believes the event some sort of modern-day miracle birth. Enter Dr. Martha Livingstone, the court-appointed clinical psychiatrist who must deduce Agnes's level of guilt. You'd think that would be enough for one play to chew on. But no, Pielmeier piles on a truckload of additional character entanglements: Dr. Livingstone is a chain-smoking lapsed Catholic, whose own sister died from medical neglect in a convent; the Mother Superior was once married and has two children, now atheists, who have disowned her; and fragile Agnes was brutally abused both psychologically and physically by her mother. And that doesn't even include a secret familial relationship between two of the characters.

Ideally, this concept would play as a philosophical steel-cage wrestling match, pitting three women with various life experiences -- one entirely devout, one totally secular, and one a mixture of both -- against each another, as we watch the sparks fly. But despite some captivating performances and tight, efficient direction by Seth Gordon, Agnes just thrashes about in its own overheated stew. It's an unqualified pleasure to watch Elizabeth Ann Townsend in a wry, probing turn as the psychiatrist, challenging both nuns, as she deals with her personal issues, to reveal what really happened. As Agnes, Alicia Kahn radiates innocence and vulnerability. And Sherri Britton captures the rigid vibe of the Mother Superior, even though her line readings become a tad mechanical.

While there are a few glimpses of humor -- particularly when Dr. Livingstone relates her technique for lighting each cigarette off the last ("I can go 14 hours on one match") -- Pielmeier's script is too bathetic, when it isn't too gimmicky. The ungainly unfolding of the multitiered story doesn't permit the actors any breathing room to develop characters we can care about. And so the eventual resolution of the murder mystery is as uninvolving as the religio-intellectual maundering that led us to it.