Last July the Stray Dog Theatre arrived on the local scene with a spirited inaugural production of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation. For its sophomore offering, this fledgling company is mounting a spare, lean, clean version of John Pielmeier's allegorical thriller Agnes of God.
A young nun has been indicted for manslaughter and is about to go on trial for the death of a baby found in her convent room. The infant was strangled by its own umbilical cord. The play is not a whodunit in the conventional sense; the viewer is pretty well assured from the outset that Sister Agnes strangled her own child. Here the mystery is more preoccupied with "whodunit" nine months earlier. Who was the father? How did he get into the convent? Was the act consensual, or was it rape? And if it was rape, why won't Agnes reveal his name? Is she a murderess, or merely mad?
So many questions. But questions and answers are at the core of drama. It can be highly satisfying to watch characters have at each other onstage, indulging in the kinds of confrontations most of us go out of our way to avoid in real life.
Most of this play's questions are asked in the office of the psychiatrist who has been assigned to determine the nun's sanity. Nevertheless, the set -- a rectangular, one-foot-high plinth, pristine except for two chairs -- resembles not so much an office as a boxing ring sans ropes. The ring lends itself to Act One sparring and, in Act Two, to the bloody Main Event.
In this corner, in the white garb, Sister Agnes, the ultimate innocent, ethereal and petulant, incapable of hating anyone or anything (except Brussels sprouts), but uneducated and so confused. "I wake up and just can't get hold of the world," she confesses. Her sweet persona compels a viewer to wonder at the nuances of innocence, legal vs. spiritual. And in the opposing corner, in the dark uniform, Dr. Martha Livingstone, who might or might not stand in for all those who would trample on the sanctity of faith. "You want to take God away from me," Agnes accuses her interrogator. "My Christ is the mind," the good doctor counterpunches.
Agnes of God is not always the easiest story to follow. But the Stray Dog production strives to clear out some of the briars and tangles. For instance, every so often the playwright indulges in monologues. But because director Gary F. Bell has chosen to stage the play in the round, Lisa Beil's psychiatrist is unable to speechify in a declamatory manner. Instead, as Beil strolls from corner to corner, working the room like a lounge entertainer, monologues become stories. Beil's shaded performance, often more tender than inquisitorial, serves the play rather than her own personal theatrics.
In the title role, Heather Whitney Wood is entrancing. She doesn't simply sit in a wing-back chair; she seeks refuge in it. She's able to take a phrase like "I don't know" and instill it with a poignancy that extends beyond the moment.
The third character, Mother Miriam Ruth, has always been problematic. Ostensibly the referee, she's not averse to throwing a few left jabs of her own. In Act Two, when Mother implores, "The wonder of science is not in the answers it provides but in the questions it uncovers," Eleanor Mullin effectively conveys Mother's conflicted passion. One senses that Pielmeier intended to populate his play with three characters whose faith is in question, but every time the Mother Superior and the psychiatrist reveal arbitrary secrets from their own pasts, the already long script strays into cul-de-sacs that only thwart the evening's momentum.
Stray Dog is staging this two-act riddle at Saint Louis University's Manresa Center, a former convent. You might be taken aback by how antiseptic the place actually is (there are no stone floors), but what's one more surprise in an evening of twists? Perhaps the biggest surprise of all is how conducive the play is to the Christmas season. One would hardly think of Agnes of God as an evening of holiday cheer; as it turns out, this drama about a possible immaculate conception seems as simpatico as those Gregorian chants that lend the evening a soothing grace.