In 1957, Carol A. Murphy joined the Order of Sisters of St. Joseph and became Sister Maureen Murphy. During her time at Our Lady of Lourdes convent in upstate New York, Sister Maureen Murphy also became principal of a primary school and a mother. Fast forward to January 2014, when a Salvadorian nun gives birth to a full-term baby boy, naming him Francisco in honor to Pope Francis. Both nuns claim they never knew they were pregnant. And, although similar in plight, their stories differ greatly.
On April 27, 1976, Sister Maureen Murphy gave birth to a healthy baby which she (allegedly) euthanized by stuffing articles of clothing down its throat. The dead newborn was found in a wastebasket behind a bookcase in Sister’s room. Sister Maureen, unconscious and bleeding profusely, was taken to hospital where doctors determined she had given birth. When questioned, Sister Maureen claimed she had no knowledge of being pregnant, giving birth, having intercourse or anything else necessary for such events to unfold. Sister Maureen was acquitted in 1977 during a non-jury trial on the grounds of insanity.
AGNES OF GOD is playwright John Pielmeier’s graciously extrapolated interpretation of Sister Maureen’s story.
The play begins with Agnes (Aimee Theresa) angelically chanting Kyrie eleison from behind a barely lit chapel vignette. As the scene slowly faded to black, I shivered. Perhaps in remembrance of my days in catholic school and church or perhaps because that plaintiff call for mercy is so foreboding. Lights up on Dr. Martha Livingston (Susie Moak), the psychiatrist tasked to assess the sanity of Sister Agnes as a part of her trial for the murder of her newborn child.
Accompanying Agnes to her appointments with Dr. Livingston is Mother Miriam Ruth (Ruth K. Brown). Mother Miriam, as Agnes’ guardian, asks Dr. Livingston to render her results quickly and, whatever the findings, to understand why Agnes should be returned to the convent to do penance for the crime. Agnes, the product of an unwanted pregnancy, is a 21 year old nun who suffered a horrible childhood, can’t read, believes in angels, and unknowledgeable as to the most basic of adult behaviors, has spent her life shielded by the convent and those around her. She is an innocent and “belongs to God.” The birth, for all we know, and for all that Mother Miriam wants to believe, could be virginal. The ex-catholic, chain-smoking, woman of science, Livingston, will have nothing to do with miracles, virginal births, or divine intervention. Is the battle between science and faith totally without agreement to disagree?
During the course of the play, the characters move between Livingston’s office and the convent with flashbacks to Agnes’ childhood courtesy of a simplistic yet efficient set by Pete Matthews. Chapel Street’s small stage is nicely adorned with a stain glass window in the chapel, a garden bench outside the convent and clinical feeling office space for Livingston.
Director Kathleen M. Kimber guides the actors with succinct blocking. I would like to see Livingston a bit more grounded, both verbally and physically, in her monologues.
The personal and philosophical conflict between Livingston (science) and Mother Miriam (faith) is tenacious. Both Moak and Brown achieve realistic, engaging characters able to make the audience understand (and possibly accept) her character’s point of view. And, when Livingston and Mother Superior take a time out to simply be women of a certain age and wisdom while sharing smoking stories, their camaraderie is genuine. You feel that they will agree to disagree and become friends.
As Livingston, Moak convincingly exudes the strong-willed, fact based decision-maker persona of doctor/scientist. Her convictions to a rational, logical reason for everything in the world is the linchpin to finding the truth. Livingston’s concerned for Agnes’ emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing is delivered with just the right amount of compassion without making her seem conflicted or soft. Even when she is comforting Agnes, her tone is deep and quieting but never truly warm and soothing.
Ruth K. Brown skillfully crafts Mother Miriam throughout the play. At first, we see a Mother Superior who stands her ground, takes no guff and gets it done. But then, we are treated to small glimmers of the everyday woman of Sister Miriam’s yesteryears. These glimmers allow us better understand how and, more importantly, why, Mother Miriam is as she is today. Her plea to Livingston to consider all possibilities, even if it means believing in the miracle of an immaculate conception, resonates. Brown’s delivery of this plea would cause the most devout of logical thinkers to take pause.
Theresa provides a well-conceived Agnes, providing childish nuances to her speech to accompany her sweet singing voice. When she gazes at the angels, you see them as clearly as she does. And, oh, are they beautiful!
AGNES OF GOD
Written by John Pielmeier
Directed by Kathleen M. Kimber
April 25 – May 3, 2014
Chapel Street Players
27 N. Chapel Street
Newark, DE 19711