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Sisters of mercy: 'Agnes of God' tests belief of skeptic, faithful

Profile image for Lucinda Breeding
Lucinda Breeding

Director Amber Bryant said she didn't set out to lead Denton Community Theatre's upcoming performance of Agnes of God

She was simply on the hunt for a show that would make sense for the PointBank Black Box Theatre, the company's smaller venue and experimental space. 

"I was on the Black Box committee, and I was looking for a good show for the Black Box," said Bryant, who just finished performing in the company's Encore  fundraising comedy. "I thought it would be a good show. It's three women — different women of different ages. It's not Southern ladies being dysfunctional and getting our hair done."

Bryant was quick to defend the likes of Steel Magnolias, The Dixie Swim Club and Driving Miss Daisy. 

"I love those kinds of plays," she said. "I was just looking for something different."

Agnes of God lines up more with the theater's stagings of Three Tall Women and Last Summer at Bluefish Cove. John Pielmeier's drama is neither Southern, nor does it blunt its rougher edges with excessive charm. 

Agnes of God starts in the middle of a crisis at a convent. A young novitiate, Agnes, has given birth to a baby and insists the child is the result of a virgin conception. Dr. Martha Livingstone, a psychiatrist, presses the nun for the truth. Mother Miriam Ruth, who considers Agnes one of her special charges, bristles at the doctor's atheism and her persistence.  

"There really aren't a lot of roles for women where you get to explore a character's flaws, and the flaws aren't the whole character," said Marygail Lakner, who plays the role of Dr. Livingstone. "I would say that Dr. Livingstone develops a joy for life and a capacity for empathy she had lost, and she gets it back with the help of Agnes."

Sienna Riehle plays the title role, a character who shows a childlike sweetness and an openness to deep mystical religious  experience.

"In a way, Agnes has had too many mothers," Riehle said. "She had the mother who abused her, and Mother Superior, who became her mother. Dr. Livingstone is really the first person to treat her as a human being. She finally has someone she can trust."

Susanne Coffey plays the role of Mother Miriam. The character was once married and raised children. Miriam is estranged from her adult children, and sees the young nuns as impressionable women who still need some maternal guidance.

Coffey said she took the part when Bryant offered it. ("I'd been thinking about these women in these roles for a while," Bryant said.)

"I didn't think I'd ever get a chance like this again," Coffey said. "I think I can do her some justice. I've never had a role this big before."

The actresses said that each of their characters sacrifice something precious before the final act. 

"Dr. Livingstone sacrifices what she views as her power," Lakner said. "She says that there are people who go their whole lives  without ever bending their knees to anyone. Metaphorically, she bends her knees to a different entity. She gives up her certainty."

Coffey said the Mother Superior lets go of her intractable point of view. 

"My seminal perspective, what I would like to believe is my approach to the world, is shaken," Coffey said.

Riehle said Agnes loses the only things she really owns.

"The name of the play is a play on words Agnus Dei, which means 'lamb of God,'" Riehle said. "She sacrifices her body, and her child. She loses some of her innocence."

The drama runs just this weekend.  Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Aug. 4-5, with a matinee show at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 6. All performances are at the PointBank Black Box Theatre, 318 E. Hickory St. Tickets cost $15. For tickets, call 940-382-1915 or visit dentoncommunitytheatre.com/.

FEATURED IMAGE: Agnes, played by Sienna Riehle, struggles to recall the events of her unexpected childbirth when Dr. Martha Livingstone, played by Marygail Lakner, interrogates her in John Pielmeier's "Agnes of God." Denton Community Theatre presents the drama this weekend at the PointBank Black Box Theatre.